Could a Simple Intervention Fight a Suicide Crisis?

A simple intervention to reduce suicides – “caring letters,” messages of compassion and empathy – showed promise in the 1960s, but has been overlooked until now.

The U.S. is in the midst of a public health crisis: suicide rates have been rising steadily across the country, and are up 25 % since 1999 – at particular risk are U.S. service members and veterans. After decades of research and innovation in the mental health field, not enough is known about suicide prevention and treatment.

In this story we explore how a psychologist working for the Department of Defense unearthed a prevention approach developed by Dr. Jerry Motto in the 1960s: researchers followed up on hospitalizations by sending patients “caring letters.” Decades later, data shows that this shockingly simple intervention remains promising.

We partnered on this story with HuffPost Highline. Using in-depth reporting and narrative storytelling, Jason Cherkis traces the origin of the Motto approach, one of the only ones that has ever led to a reduction in suicide deaths, and visits people working at the forefront of the field today. Read it here.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

View full episodes at

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Sarah Weiser
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Reporter: Jason Cherkis