The effect of a therapeutic smartphone application on suicidal ideation in young adults: Findings from a randomized controlled trial in Australia
Torok, M., Han, J., McGillivray, L., Wong, Q., Werner-Seidler, A., ... Christensen, H.
Suicidal ideation is a major risk for a suicide attempt in younger people, such that reducing severity of ideation is an important target for suicide prevention. Smartphone applications present a new opportunity for managing ideation in young adults; however, confirmatory evidence for efficacy from randomized trials is lacking. The objective of this study was to assess whether a therapeutic smartphone application (“LifeBuoy”) was superior to an attention-matched control application at reducing the severity of suicidal ideation.
Methods and findings
In this 2-arm parallel, double-blind, randomized controlled trial, 455 young adults from Australia experiencing recent suicidal ideation and aged 18 to 25 years were randomly assigned in a 2:2 ratio to use a smartphone application for 6 weeks in May 2020, with the final follow-up in October 2020. The primary outcome was change in suicidal ideation symptom severity scores from baseline (T0) to postintervention (T1) and 3-month postintervention follow-up (T2), measured using the Suicidal Ideation Attributes Scale (SIDAS). Secondary outcomes were symptom changes in depression (Patient Health Questionnaire-9, PHQ-9), generalized anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7, GAD-7), distress (Distress Questionnaire-5, DQ5), and well-being (Short Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, SWEMWBS). This trial was conducted online, using a targeted social media recruitment strategy. The intervention groups were provided with a self-guided smartphone application based on dialectical behavior therapy (DBT; “LifeBuoy”) to improve emotion regulation and distress tolerance. The control group were provided a smartphone application that looked like LifeBuoy (“LifeBuoy-C”), but delivered general (nontherapeutic) information on a range of health and lifestyle topics. Among 228 participants randomized to LifeBuoy, 110 did not complete the final survey; among 227 participants randomized to the control condition, 91 did not complete the final survey. All randomized participants were included in the intent-to-treat analysis for the primary and secondary outcomes. There was a significant time × condition effect for suicidal ideation scores in favor of LifeBuoy at T1 (p < 0.001, d = 0.45) and T2 (p = 0.007, d = 0.34). There were no superior intervention effects for LifeBuoy on any secondary mental health outcomes from baseline to T1 or T2 [p-values: 0.069 to 0.896]. No serious adverse events (suicide attempts requiring medical care) were reported.
The main limitations of the study are the lack of sample size calculations supporting the study to be powered to detect changes in secondary outcomes and a high attrition rate at T2, which may lead efficacy to be overestimated.
LifeBuoy was associated with superior improvements in suicidal ideation severity, but not secondary mental health outcomes, compared to the control application, LifeBuoy-C. Digital therapeutics may need to be purposefully designed to target a specific health outcome to have efficacy.