Novel mental health program improves teens’ ability to recognize, support peers at risk of suicide

Children's Health

A novel mental health program improves teenagers’ ability to recognize and support friends who might be at risk of suicide, according to new research.

University of Melbourne researchers have evaluated the impact of teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) – a universal mental health literacy program for high school students in Years 10-12 – as an intervention to improve peer support towards adolescents at risk of suicide.

Researchers analyzed survey data from more than 800 Year 10 – 12 students from four government secondary schools who had participated in the 3 x 75-minute classroom-based training program. This was compared with students who completed a matched control physical first aid course.

Researchers found students who participated in the tMHFA training were 35 times more likely to report adequate suicide first aid than those in the control group. This includes noticing something is wrong, asking if their friend is OK and suggesting they tell an adult.

Results suggested that student knowledge of the general warning signs of mental health problems and confidence to offer support was more important than having specific knowledge of suicide – calling into question suicide specific education programs in schools.

tMHFA students reported higher levels of distress following the training than the students who received physical first aid, however most distress often lasted from a few moments to a few hours. The 12-month follow up confirmed that this experience was fleeting and not associated with long-term harm.

University of Melbourne Senior Research Fellow Laura Hart said the findings demonstrate the importance of embedding suicide-prevention information within general mental health programs in schools and increasing peer support and discussion opportunities.

Young people account for nearly one third of the 800 000 people who die by suicide each year, with suicide a leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds.

Three in four young people report that they would first turn to a friend for help if they were considering suicide. We need to equip teenagers with the skills and knowledge to recognize warning signs and get appropriate help for their friends.

University of Melbourne Senior Research Fellow Laura Hart

tMHFA is currently the only program to provide suicide prevention information embedded in a broader mental health education program.

This research has been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

Journal reference:

Hart, L. M. et al. (2019) teen Mental Health First Aid as a school-based intervention for improving peer support of adolescents at risk of suicide: Outcomes from a cluster randomised crossover trial. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

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