Talk Therapy Substantially Reduces Suicide Risk, Study Finds

Laura Kenney

(Photo by Getty Images)

"You should talk to someone," could be the most important five words you say to a loved one who is depressed and thinking of suicide.

A large longitudinal study has found that talk therapy can cut the risk of suicide by more than 25 percent. Talk therapy, another name for psychotherapy, is a proven way to treat depression. The most common types of talk therapy are cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, which focuses on how negative thought patterns affect mood, and interpersonal therapy, which looks at how you relate to others.

In the study, which was published in Lancet Psychiatryresearchers analyzed Danish health data from more than 65,000 people in Denmark who attempted suicide between Jan. 1, 1992 and Dec. 31, 2010. Of that group, they looked at 5,678 people who received psychosocial therapy at one of eight suicide prevention clinics. The researchers then compared their outcomes over time with 17,304 people who had attempted suicide and looked similar on 31 factors but had not gone for treatment afterward. Participants were followed for up to 20 years.

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The results: During the first year, those who received therapy were 27 percent less likely to attempt suicide again. After five years, there were 26 percent fewer suicides in the group that had been treated following their attempt. After 10 years, the suicide rate for those who had therapy was 229 per 100,000 compared to 314 per 100,000 in the group that did not get the treatment.

While it isn’t necessarily surprising that counseling would help suicides, there had not been much research to support whether or not a specific psychological treatment is working. This is the first large, high-quality study to offer evidence that talk therapy can decrease suicide rates.

"We know that people who have attempted suicide are a high-risk population and that we need to help them. However, we did not know what would be effective in terms of treatment,” says the study’s leader, Annette Erlangsen, DPH, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a press release. “Now we have evidence that psychosocial treatment – which provides support, not medication – is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide."

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Study co-author Elizabeth A. Stuart, PhD, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health, says that before this, it was not possible to determine whether a specific suicide prevention treatment was working. “It isn’t ethical to do a randomized study where some get suicide prevention therapy while others don’t,” Stuart says. Since the Danish clinics were rolled out slowly and participation was voluntary, and extensive long-term follow-up data were available on such a large group of people, the researchers had an ethical way to gather the information they needed.

"Our findings provide a solid basis for recommending that this type of therapy be considered for populations at risk for suicide," says Stuart.

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