Preventing suicide in young people

Symbolic picture for the article. The link opens the image in a large view.
Dr. Anja Hildebrand and Dr. Maren Weiss from the Chair of Psychological Assessment, Quantitative Methods and Forensic Psychology at FAU were both responsible for designing the study. (Images: K. Nussbächer)

Team of researchers at FAU evaluates the [U25] online suicide prevention programme

Suicide is the second most common cause of death in young people between 15 and 29 years of age worldwide. Around 500 young people take their own life every year in Germany, which is nine percent of all deaths in those under the age of 25. And for every suicide there are around 10 to 20 suicide attempts. Researchers at FAU have evaluated the [U25] online suicide prevention programme offered by the Caritas Association and can now provide some interim results. According to these results, the special form of the advice provided by young people, who themselves are under 25 years old, improved the general situation of 47 percent of the young people who used the programme and significantly reduced the risk of suicide.

On an equal footing

They distance themselves from friends and family, stop taking part in leisure activities or give their mobile phones away. All these things can be warning signs for suicide risk in young people. ‘Many young people don’t want to use the conventional types of advice available such as those offered by their doctor, or child and youth advice services or psychotherapy. They don’t want to talk to a 40-year old psychologist, and would prefer to talk to someone their own age in order to really feel understood,’ explains Dr. Anja Hildebrand from the Chair of Psychological Assessment, Quantitative Methods and Forensic Psychology, who designed the study in conjunction with Dr. Maren Weiss.

Volunteers under the age of 25

This is the reason the [U25] programme set up by Caritas, which is available across Germany, focuses on providing support online to young people under 25 who want to end their lives. Specially-trained school pupils, students, trainees and employed young people between the ages of 16 and 25 work as volunteers and can be contacted anonymously by distressed young people experiencing a crisis by e-mail and without an appointment. The young counsellors work according to the principle of providing support but not treatment, with the aim of preventing suicide and paving the way for young people to approach traditional counselling services.

Psychological Assessment, Quantitative Methods and Forensic Psychology

With funding from the Federal Ministry of Health, FAU researchers led by Prof. Dr. Mark Stemmler, Chair of Psychological Assessment, Quantitative Methods and Forensic Psychology, are currently evaluating the project and can now provide some interim results. ‘More than 90 percent of the people who received support and who took part in the survey are at risk of suicide, and more than half have already attempted suicide,’ says Hildebrand about the starting point of the project. According to the initial results, the support provided online is used mainly by girls and young women whose average age is 18. The service is used above all by young people who report that they suffer from a mental illness and find it very distressing. Bullying or relationship problems play a secondary role and are seen as less stressful. ‘Suicide risk is not the only problem. On average, those affected have an average of five to six other problems to deal with such as self harm and loneliness,’ reports Stemmler.

Volunteers’ situation also investigated

The team not only examined the behaviour of the users of the online service. It also analysed the volunteers themselves, who work very closely with the Caritas employees at the offices where the project is based, most of whom are trained in education. ‘More than 1000 young people receive support from the peer advisors in Germany each year,’ says Hildebrand. ‘Some of the advisors have experienced their own crises, but these have to have been overcome at least one year ago.’ The stress for the advisors that can arise from contact with people at risk of suicide is seen as being quite low. ‘The peers consider what they have learnt at [U25] as rewarding and are much more confident when dealing with people.’

Questionnaires, interviews, e-mails

Mark Stemmler’s team used different observation methods for the evaluation. To date, the team has analysed documentation sheets, usage surveys, expert interviews with the peer advisors at the Nuremberg location of [U25] as well as e-mail correspondence that documents the path from the first e-mail sent by a young person in distress to a completed series of consultations. The documentation sheets, mail correspondence and surveys for users and the advisors come from all over Germany.

The project, which started in 2017, is being funded by the Federal Ministry of Health until autumn 2020. The German Caritas Association is the project partner. In a further step, the research team is planning a representative survey of all [U25] advisors in Germany.

Further information:

Dr. Anja Hildebrand
Tel.: +49 9131 85 64016

Dr. Maren Weiss
Phone: +49 9131 85 64015