A soldier named Jerome Motto received caring letters from home in World War II. They helped boost his spirits and later led to one of the nation’s first successful suicide interventions. Now, researchers have tested the effectiveness of caring texts sent to active-duty military.

The study was led by Kate Comtois, PhD, MPH, professor at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine. The results were published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Comtois said the most significant finding was that the caring contacts reduced the odds of a suicide attempt from 15 percent to 9 percent.

“Caring contacts is an entirely different way to engage and take care of suicidal individuals,” she said. “It can both prevent suicidal behavior and provide support over periods of stress and transition.”

The study recruited Army and Marine Corps personnel identified as being at risk for suicide. The control group was given 11 text messages from a clinician, who engaged with the servicemembers, including calling them on the phone if they were feeling urgent distress.

This simple intervention builds on the work of Motto, who became a psychiatrist and researcher and used caring letters to conduct the first successful clinical trial to reduce suicide deaths. In 2018, the U.S. military experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty personnel in at least six years.

In the UW study, just under 14 percent of text responses mentioned difficulty and adversity, but after a few exchanges with a clinician, the servicemember felt better, said Amanda Kerbrat, MSW, LICSW, a research scientist with the UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Most people didn’t seem to need much to get the message that someone cared and was looking out for them,” she said.

This article was adapted from information provided by UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine.