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  November 18, 2002

Study: Approach To Preventing
Teen Suicide Looks Promising
By Jane Shaskan

Despite many different approaches to stemming teen suicide during the past 15 years, it remains one of the leading causes of death among young adults. A relatively new program, Signs of Suicide or SOS, is showing real promise, according to a recent study conducted at the UConn Health Center.

"SOS combines two prominent suicide prevention strategies - curriculum-based instruction and depression screenings - to teach high school students to respond to the signs of suicide as an emergency, much as one would react to signs of a heart attack," says Robert Aseltine, associate professor of behavioral sciences and community health at the School of Dental Medicine. He conducted the study in collaboration with Screening for Mental Health Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., developers of the SOS program.

"The goal of SOS is to teach young people to acknowledge the warning signs of suicide and take them seriously; to genuinely care about the person showing these symptoms; and to tell a responsible adult," Aseltine says. "For most teens, peers become the center of social involvement and emotional investment, so tapping into that peer group is key. By teaching them to recognize the signs of depression and empowering them to intervene when confronted with a friend showing suicidal symptoms, SOS capitalizes on this central feature of their development.

"Preliminary evidence seems to support that SOS is working," he adds.

Participating in the study, which was funded by the Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md., and the Patterson Trust in Hartford, were 2,100 students from five high schools in Hartford and in Columbus, Ga.

Students were randomly selected to participate in the program in either the first or the second half of the school year. About three months after the first group completed the program, and before the second group started, both groups were given brief, self-administered questionnaires by interviewers from UConn's Center for Survey Research and Analysis.

The results of the survey showed that rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts were significantly lower among the students who had participated in the program. These students also demonstrated greater knowledge and more constructive attitudes about depression and suicide.

Aseltine says SOS is the first school-based suicide prevention program to significantly reduce suicide attempts.

He says future research will look at more socially and geographically diverse areas, to see if the initial findings can be replicated, and will include follow-up to determine whether the positive effects last.

Although it is not "normal" for teens to have some thoughts of suicide, says Aseltine, unfortunately it is not unusual: "The goal of this program is to stop thoughts from turning into action."

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