The first few weeks after a hospital discharge are the most critical for teens who were admitted for suicidal thoughts.

A new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, reveals that participating in an intervention program followed by the use of a personalized app, called BRITE, can significantly reduce suicide attempts in teens after they return home.

The study tracked the cases of 66 patients ages 12-18 who were hospitalized after attempting or contemplating suicide. Thirty-one percent of those who received standard care attempted to kill themselves within 24 weeks of being sent home; the rate was nearly halved for those who received the intervention program and app.

“Those first few weeks between leaving the hospital and receiving outpatient care is a high-risk time for these adolescents,” said Dr. Betsy Kennard, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern.

“We’re trying to equip them with the tools they need when they become distressed — skills that may not be taught during standard inpatient treatment because there’s so much that goes into just stabilizing patients during their few days in the hospital.”

The intervention program is brief (about three hours) and involves therapists discussing various coping strategies and learning some of the patient’s favorite activities and fond memories. This information is then programmed into an app that the teen can use after being discharged from the hospital.

BRITE prompts the teens to rate their mood on a daily basis and offers personalized recovery strategies when they’re feeling distressed. For example, one teen might be encouraged to play a favorite video game or look through family photos that had been previously uploaded to the app. Another might watch a meditation video. If a patient needs immediate care, he or she can access the suicide emergency numbers programmed into BRITE.

“These are some of the coping mechanisms that teens may forget when facing suicidal urges,” Kennard said. “We hoped that this intervention would promote safety at a vulnerable time, and the preliminary results are promising along these lines.”

Although other intervention programs exist, little research has been done to evaluate how or if they help teens once they are discharged, said Kennard. Her team plans to begin a larger study later this year evaluating more patients and the individual effects of receiving either the intervention program or BRITE, both, or the standard treatment alone.

If the findings are positive, she said, then inpatient psychiatric units across the country may have a new roadmap to help prepare adolescents for the challenges ahead.

“This approach merits further study,” Kennard said. “Focusing on stress tolerance and giving access to positive emotion could be a lifesaving difference for so many patients.”

The research comes amid a rising national suicide rate, particularly among teenagers. From 2007-2015, the adolescent suicide rate doubled among females and increased 30 percent among males. Prior research suggests a large proportion of these suicide attempts occur in the first three weeks of outpatient treatment following a hospital stay.

The app is part of a broader mission by UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute to understand, treat, and prevent depression among teens.

Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center