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Peer Leaders as Gatekeepers and Agents of Change: Understanding How Sources of Strength Reduces Suicide Risk and Promotes Wellness



Gatekeeper training (GKT) is a common strategy in suicide prevention that educates informal helpers (e.g., friends) about warning signs and risk factors for suicide as well as strategies to support distressed peers. Sources of Strength (Sources) is an effective intervention model that combines GKT with school-wide prevention activities and relies on trained gatekeepers—peer leaders—to diffuse intervention elements into their social networks to reduce peer distress and promote wellness.


The present study identified internal characteristics of peer leaders that make them successful gatekeepers for Sources and explored how Sources skills are successfully transmitted into peer leader networks.


Using qualitative interview data from two cohorts of peer leaders, we investigated diffusion and intervention efforts during high school and in post-high school environments.


Results support the use of the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) in understanding behavioral precursors that encourage effective gatekeeping (GK) behavior. Findings also suggest that Sources diffusion was robust in high school but declined post-high school. However, there were important inherent characteristics that appeared to spur greater uptake of Sources’ GKT, including optimism, empathy, kindness, and extraversion.


TPB offers well-defined constructs that can be targeted to promote GK behavior in the context of Sources or similar suicide prevention programming. Specific internal traits may reinforce gatekeepers’ behavioral intentions, which then may support greater engagement in GK behavior. However, declines in GK behavior may occur over time, which suggests post-high school booster activities may be important to offset such declines.

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Availability of Data and Material

Due to confidentiality and approved IRB procedures, qualitative data cannot be made available. The first and second authors take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Code Availability

Codebooks will be made available upon request.


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The present study was supported by two awards from the Spencer Foundation (#201800127 and # 5341588) to the PI of this study (first author).

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Correspondence to Anne Williford.

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Consent to Participate

All participants under the age of 18 years obtained active parental consent to participate and provided assent at the beginning of the interview. All participants over the age of 18 years provided verbal consent at the beginning of the phone interviews.

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All study procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the sponsoring university.

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Williford, A., Yoder, J., Fulginiti, A. et al. Peer Leaders as Gatekeepers and Agents of Change: Understanding How Sources of Strength Reduces Suicide Risk and Promotes Wellness. Child Youth Care Forum 51, 539–560 (2022).

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  • Suicide prevention
  • Gatekeeper training
  • Adolescence
  • Emerging adulthood
  • Theory of planned behavior