New project to tackle teenage suicides

Published: 8 November 2012 at 13:36

Anglia Ruskin examines benefits of internet-based mental health promotion

A research project aimed at reducing the rate of suicide amongst young people has been launched by Anglia Ruskin University.

Anglia Ruskin has joined academic institutions in Sweden, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Spain to carry out a study aimed at developing an internet-based mental health promotion and suicide prevention programme, targeting young people aged 14 to 24.

The SUPREME project (Suicide Prevention by Internet and Media Based Mental Health Promotion) responds to the priority set by the 2008 European Pact on Mental Health and Well-Being.  This called for strategies to be developed to address the growing problem of suicide in the 27 EU member states, where annually approximately 13,500 young people aged 15-24 commit suicide, and a further 500,000 attempt suicide.

In the UK more than 600 young people die by suicide each year and three times more young men than young women take their own lives.  Younger women are more likely to resort to deliberate self-harm and attempted suicide, rather than suicide itself. 

It is estimated that at least 24,000 people in England and Wales attempt suicide every year, and this number is rising dramatically. Statistics from the YoungMinds charity show that 6.2% of 16-24 year olds have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

The SUPREME project is aimed at young people, most of whom feel comfortable finding information and communicating through the internet using chatrooms and forums.  

Research shows that internet-based resources are effective in disseminating health education to adolescents.  SUPREME aims to evaluate the effectiveness of an interactive website that is based on previously conducted literature reviews, focus groups with adolescents, and mapping of local health services.

The project will use a randomised controlled trial (RCT) design to investigate whether adolescents exposed to the website show a decrease in indicators of depression, anxiety, stress and suicidality compared to a control group, which receives only a leaflet.  It will also examine the benefits of two strategies for promoting the website: via peers and via health professionals.

The study will involve 300 randomly selected 15-year-old pupils from a number of randomly selected state schools across the region.  The ‘intervention’ and ‘control group’ statuses have been randomly allocated to the schools, and the pupils are being asked to complete a set of questionnaires before and immediately after the intervention, as well as six months later.

The fieldwork will run until June 2013 and great care is being taken to protect the pupils’ identities online and to ensure a prompt response in case of emergencies.  Following completion of the RCT study by the participating countries, Anglia Ruskin will evaluate the project and produce guidelines for best practice in internet usage for mental health promotion and suicide prevention.

The European Commission’s Executive Agency for Health and Consumers is providing 60% of the funding for the study, with Anglia Ruskin providing the additional resources.  To increase the relevance of the UK findings, Anglia Ruskin is applying for separate UK government funding to conduct a mixed methods study nationally.

The Anglia Ruskin research team is headed by Tim Waller, Professor of Child and Family Studies and Acting Director of Anglia Ruskin’s Childhood and Youth Research Institute (CYRI). 

Professor Waller said:

“This is an incredibly important area of research and could make a difference to the lives of thousands of young people across Europe.  There is still an enormous stigma attached to mental health issues but if we are able to improve the way information and advice is shared, then hopefully this stigma can be eroded.
“We aim to improve mental health promotion in order to both support those young people in distress and help reduce the number of young people suffering from mental health problems in future.
“Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds across the world and the issue becomes even more prevalent during times of economic difficulty, such as at present.
“Currently there is a real problem with people leaving school and being unable to find work, and the under 24s are disproportionately affected.  There is evidence that NEET (not in education, employment or training) youngsters are more prone to suicide.”