Effect of Augmenting Standard Care for Military Personnel With Brief Caring Text Messages for Suicide Prevention: A Randomized Clinical Trial

JAMA Psychiatry. 2019 May 1;76(5):474-483. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.4530.


Importance: Accessible and cost-effective interventions for suicidality are needed to address high rates of suicidal behavior among military service members. Caring Contacts are brief periodic messages that express unconditional care and concern and have been previously shown to prevent suicide deaths, attempts, ideation, and hospitalizations.

Objective: To test the effectiveness of augmenting standard military health care with Caring Contacts delivered via text message to reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviors over 12 months.

Design, setting, and participants: This randomized clinical trial was conducted at 3 military installations in the southern and western United States. Soldiers and Marines identified as being at risk of suicide were recruited between April 2013 and September 2016. The final follow-up was in September 2017.

Interventions: Both groups received standard care, and the Caring Contacts group also received consisted of 11 text messages delivered on day 1, at week 1, at months 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12, and on participants' birthdays.

Main outcomes and measures: Primary outcomes were current suicidal ideation and suicide risk incidents (hospitalization or medical evacuation). Secondary outcomes were worst-point suicidal ideation, emergency department visits, and suicide attempts. Suicidal ideation was measured by the Scale for Suicide Ideation, suicide risk incidents, and emergency department visits by the Treatment History Interview; attempted suicide was measured by the Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Count.

Results: Among 658 randomized participants (329 randomizely assigned to each group), data were analyzed for 657 individuals (mean [SD] age, 25.2 [6.1] years; 539 men [82.0%]). All participants reported suicidal ideation at baseline, and 291 (44.3%) had previously attempted suicide. Of the 657 participants, 461 (70.2%) were assessed at 12 months. Primary outcomes were nonsignificant. There was no significant effect on likelihood or severity of current suicidal ideation or likelihood of a suicide risk incident; there was also no effect on emergency department visits. However, participants who received Caring Contacts (172 of 216 participants [79.6%]) had lower odds than those receiving standard care alone (179 of 204 participants [87.7%]) of experiencing any suicidal ideation between baseline and follow-up (odds ratio, 0.56 [95% CI, 0.33-0.95]; P = .03) and fewer had attempted suicide since baseline (21 of 233 [9.0%] in the group receiving Caring Contacts vs 34 of 228 [14.9%] in the standard-care group; odds ratio, 0.52 [95% CI, 0.29-0.92]; P = .03).

Conclusions and relevance: This trial provides inconsistent results on the effectiveness of caring text messages between primary and secondary outcomes, but this inexpensive and scalable intervention offers promise for preventing suicide attempts and ideation in military personnel. Additional research is needed.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov identifier: NCT01829620.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Military Health
  • Military Personnel / psychology*
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide / prevention & control*
  • Suicide / psychology
  • Suicide, Attempted / prevention & control
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data
  • Text Messaging*
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT01829620