Handwritten Letters Might Help Prevent Suicide Attempts, Study Finds

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Everyone enjoys getting a personal, handwritten letter. But the personal missive may be especially beneficial to people at risk of suicide, a new study finds. The research, published in PLOS Medicine, followed a pilot study of a suicide prevention method called the Attempted Suicide Short Intervention Program at a hospital in Switzerland. As part of the method, patients received follow-up letters from therapists they had seen after being admitted to the hospital for attempting suicide. 

A total of 120 patients took part in the pilot study, which involved seeing a therapist for three sessions to discuss their suicide attempt and mental health. Afterward, half of the patients received mail from their therapist. The handwritten letters arrived once every three months during the first year after the patients were released from the hospital, and every six months the next year. While the notes mostly contained boiler-plate advice on warning signs and staying safe, they also included a few personalized statements from the therapists.

The technique seems to have had a broad impact on the patients who received those letters, compared to a control group that just went through post-hospitalization therapy. Only five patients in the letter-receiving group attempted suicide over the 24 months of the study, while 41 in the control group did. One person in each group died from suicide.  

The personalized letters may have given patients a reminder that someone cared about them, as one of the study’s authors told The Washington Post.

Despite public health efforts, “suicide has proven stubbornly difficult to understand, to predict, and to prevent,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and many people at high risk for suicide aren’t getting the treatment they need. In the U.S., suicide is the 10th leading cause of death (and the second leading cause of death for people 25–34), and far more people attempt suicide than die from it (as many as 25 times more in the case of youth, and 12 times more overall). So an 80 percent reduced risk of attempted suicide, as seen in this study, is a pretty big deal.

While this study had some limitations, such as patients dropping out, and more pilots around the world will be necessary (globally, 800,000 people kill themselves every year), it’s definitely a hopeful sign.

And here’s a reminder that if you are in distress, you should make a free, confidential call to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

[h/t The Washington Post]