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First Study of Brief Suicide Interventions for LGBTQ+ Young Adults Aims to Save Lives

Sept. 14, 2021

Two sets of hands clasped together

The University of Texas at Austin will collaborate with UT Southwestern Medical Center on the nation’s first study of suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ young adults – a group at higher risk for depression and suicide.

The study, supported by a $5.4 million award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), is aimed at identifying whether interventions tailored to this population may reduce their risks. Researchers from Steve Hicks School of Social Work and Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin have joined forces with study leaders at UT Southwestern, and with Texas Health Institute, a nonprofit, public health institute based in Austin.

PCORI is an independent, nonprofit organization authorized by Congress in 2010 to fund research that will provide patients, their caregivers and clinicians with the evidence-based information needed to make better-informed health care decisions. For more information about PCORI’s funding, visit PCORI.org.

The adapted interventions will address how to identify and screen LGBTQ+ patients in primary care and effectively engage with the participants using strategies that take into account the needs of these young adults who may have experienced negative interactions with health systems in the past.

“We know the science behind suicide interventions, but they may need to be culturally tailored to specific subpopulations to save more lives,” said Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D., LCSW, the study’s principal investigator and professor and vice chair of research for family and community medicine at UT Southwestern. “What works for one group may not work for another group.”

More than 40% of LGBTQ+ youths have seriously considered suicide during the past year, according to The Trevor Project, a national organization providing suicide prevention services to this population. Although this rate is notably higher than for non-LGBTQ+ youths, little research has been conducted on what types of interventions may be able to address the disparity.

The project will enroll nearly 600 LGBTQ+ young adults (18-24 years old) from the Dallas and Austin areas who have thoughts about suicide. The participants will be assigned to one of two programs that will connect them with mental health care professionals. However, one of the programs also trains support persons – chosen by the patients – to provide them with emotional support and encouragement to use mental health services.

“Identifying LGBTQ+ young adults before they are in crisis is a critical component of this study, as many suicide prevention interventions focus on preventing suicide attempts among young people who have recently made one,” said Phillip W. Schnarrs, Ph.D., co-principal investigator and associate professor of population health at Dell Med who will lead the work at the Austin site. “This population often feels disconnected from others due to stigma and/or discrimination, which can lead to thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts. So, examining the effectiveness of interventions that encourage social support is vital.”

The study will recruit patients from primary care settings and gauge the effectiveness of the programs by measuring their suicidal ideation – their thoughts about suicide. Both programs will be adapted based on input from members of the LGBTQ+ community and other key stakeholders from the project’s engagement team, which includes a youth advisory board and another PCORI-funded project called TransFORWARD.

“Many people go to primary care but may not seek out mental health care, so we will go to primary care clinics to try to intervene early when people first develop these thoughts about suicide,” Arnold said.

Arnold’s award has been approved pending completion of a business and programmatic review by PCORI staff and issuance of a formal award contract.

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