UTSW leads nation’s first study of brief suicide intervention for LGBTQ+ young adults

Saving lives: Collaboration with UT Austin, THI will enroll nearly 600 patients in Dallas, Austin.

DALLAS – Sept. 14, 2021 – UT Southwestern Medical Center will lead the nation’s first study of suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ young adults – a group at higher risk for depression and suicide.

Photo of Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D.
Dr. Elizabeth Arnold, Professor and Vice Chair of Research for Family and Community Medicine at UT Southwestern

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. 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 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+ youth have seriously considered suicide in 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+ youth, 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. UT Southwestern will collaborate with the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Health Institute (THI), a nonprofit, public health institute based in Austin.

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 utilize mental health services.

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.

“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,” Dr. Arnold said.

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.

“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.”

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

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 117,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 3 million outpatient visits a year.

About Texas Health Institute (THI)

THI is a non-profit, non-partisan public health institute. Since 1964, THI has served as a trusted, leading voice on public health and healthcare issues in Texas and the nation. THI’s expertise, strategies, and nimble approach makes the organization an integral and essential partner in driving systems change efforts. THI works across and within sectors to lead collaborative efforts and facilitate connections to foster systems that provide the opportunity for everyone to lead a healthy life.