Effectiveness of brief psychological interventions for suicidal presentations: a systematic review

BMC Psychiatry. 2018 May 3;18(1):120. doi: 10.1186/s12888-018-1663-5.


Background: Every year, more than 800,000 people worldwide die by suicide. The aim of this study was to conduct a systematic review of the effectiveness of brief psychological interventions in addressing suicidal thoughts and behaviour in healthcare settings.

Methods: Following PRISMA guidelines, systematic searches were conducted in MEDLINE, CINAHL, EMBASE, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials and PsycINFO databases. A predefined search strategy was used. Two independent reviewers screened titles and abstracts followed by full texts against predefined inclusion criteria. Backward and forward citation tracking of included papers was conducted. Quality appraisal was conducted using the Cochrane Risk of Bias Tool for Randomized Controlled Trials and the CASP tool for randomised controlled trials. The small number and heterogeneity of studies did not allow for meta-analysis to be conducted. A narrative synthesis was conducted.

Results: Four controlled studies of brief psychological interventions were included, conducted in Switzerland, the U.S. and across low and middle-income countries. Three studies were conducted with adults and one with adolescents. All studies were judged to be at low risk of bias. All of the interventions were implemented with patients after attending emergency departments and involved 3412 participants. The main outcomes were suicide, suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, depression and hospitalization. The components of the interventions were early therapeutic engagement, information provision, safety planning and follow-up contact for at least 12 months. The interventions drew to, different degrees, on psychological theory and techniques. Two trials that measured suicidal ideation found no impact. Two studies showed fewer suicide attempts, one showed fewer suicides and one found an effect on depression.

Conclusions: Although the evidence base is small, brief psychological interventions appear to be effective in reducing suicide and suicide attempts. All studies to date have been conducted with people who had attended the ED but the interventions could potentially be adopted for inpatient and other outpatient settings. Early engagement and therapeutic intervention based on psychological theories of suicidal behaviour, sustained in follow-up contacts, may be particularly beneficial.

Trial registration: Systematic review registration: PROSPERO CRD42015025867.

Keywords: Controlled studies; Effective communication; Suicidal ideation; Suicide; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Crisis Intervention / methods*
  • Humans
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide* / prevention & control
  • Suicide* / psychology
  • Treatment Outcome