Suicide Care in Systems (2011)

In 2011, the Clinical Care & Intervention Task Force published this National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention road map for the Zero Suicide in Healthcare initiative.

Covington D, Hogan, M, et al. Suicide Care in Systems Framework. National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention: Clinical Care Task Force; 2011.

executive summary

The following report presents the findings and recommendations of the Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force to the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention.  The Task Force focused its deliberations and recommendations on care in four environments:  (1) Emergency Departments and Medical-Surgical Units; (2) Primary Care and General Medical Settings; (3) Behavioral Health Entities; and (4) Crisis Services.  And, while much of our concept of care lies in traditional face-to-face service delivery between clinicians and patients, the Task Force recognizes and has incorporated the growing use of technology to deliver care (e.g., telephone lines, e-help, texting, blogs, and social networks).

The Task Force focused its environmental scan on a number of programs that have garnered attention for their novel approaches and positive outcomes. These programs included the following:

  • Air Force Suicide Prevention Program (AFSPP); 1996-2002
  • Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) “Perfect Depression Care;” 2001-present
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) “Suicide Risk Assessment Standards;” 2007-present
  • Central Arizona Programmatic Suicide Deterrent System Project; 2009-present

In each of these initiatives, dramatic successes were achieved in reducing suicide attempts, deaths, and in reducing costs associated with unnecessary hospital and emergency department care.  Most importantly, these initiatives have demonstrated the capacity to save lives.  In reviewing these initiatives, the Task Force found three critical factors common to all that led to their remarkable successes.

  • Core Values – the belief and commitment that suicide can be eliminated in a population under care (boundaried population), by improving service access and quality and through continuous improvement (rendering suicide a “never event” for these populations);
  • Systems Management – taking systematic steps across systems of care to create a culture that no longer finds suicide acceptable, set aggressive but achievable goals to eliminate suicide attempts and deaths among members, and organize service delivery and support accordingly; and
  • Evidence-Based Clinical Care Practice – delivered through the system of care with a focus on productive patient/staff interactions. These methods (e.g., standardized risk stratification, targeted evidence-based clinical interventions, accessibility, follow-up and engagement and education of patients, families and health care professionals) achieve results.

Core Values: Beliefs and Attitudes – The Foundation for Eliminating Suicide Deaths and Attempts – The Task Force has identified five critical elements that it believes are instrumental for public and behavioral health organizations to adopt and adapt in order to implement suicide prevention effectively.

  1. Leadership leading to cultural transformation – Organizational leadership must articulate and infuse the fundamental tenet that a suicide event (attempt or death) is an unacceptable outcome of its care, and build a culture that strives to make suicide a “never event.”
  2. Continuity of Care and Shared Service Responsibility – Caring for suicidal persons requires that the suicidal risk be addressed directly, not merely as a symptom of an underlying disease.  That care will most likely require multiple levels of services in a team environment.  Discharge decisions from one level of care (e.g., hospital care) must incorporate linkages to other necessary levels of care (e.g., intensive outpatient, private therapist, pharmacological therapy).  Organizations must recognize, accept, and implement shared service responsibilities both among various clinical staff within the organization and among providers in the larger community.
  3. Immediate Access to Care for All Persons in Suicidal Crisis – Because many persons seek care only when they are in crisis, behavioral health systems must provide 24-hour, 7-day a week availability to individuals trained in assessment, supportive counseling and intervention.  Crisis hotlines, online crisis chat/intervention services, self-help tools, crisis outreach teams and other services can ensure that individuals can obtain help when they need it – eliminating barriers related to cost, distance, and stigma.
  4. Productive Interactions between Persons at Risk and Persons Providing Care – Positive health and behavioral health outcomes are partly dependent on a functional relationship between the person requiring help and the persons delivering help.  This assistance should respect the cultural preferences and values of the individuals as much as possible.  Trusting therapeutic alliances are fundamental to reducing suicide risk and promoting recovery and wellness.  Such alliances are most productive when the care is collaborative, where the client is actively engaged in making choices that will keep him/her safe, and when the clinician feels confident that he/she has the training and skills to support the client’s safety and treat the suicide risk.
  5. Evaluate Performance and Use for Quality Improvement – Setting a goal of zero suicides and managing a system of care to achieve that goal requires organizations to evaluate performance rigorously and to use untoward events as opportunities to improve their capacity to save lives at risk.

Systems Management: Implementation and Action for Care Excellence To achieve the goal of zero suicides will require countless managerial decisions – both the major policy shifts and the details of patient care management.  In this context, the Task Force recommends three major managerial areas to guide the organization of effective service delivery.

  1. Policies and Procedures – All health and behavioral health organizations should have specific written policies and procedures focused on the detection and response to persons presenting for care with suicide risk.  Staff must be trained on how to employ the policies and procedures, with regular (e.g., annual) scheduled refreshers.
  2. Collaboration and Communication – Responding to suicide risk should be premised on collaborative care characterized by direct and open communication with persons at risk of suicide and timely and effective communication patterns with all personnel who are collaborating in the person’s care.
  3. Trained and Skilled Work Force – Public health and behavioral health organizations should assure that staff working with persons with suicide risk have been appropriately trained and possess requisite skills.

Evidence-Based Clinical Care Practice: Comprehensive Quality Care to Save Lives – While research has shown that over 90 percent of persons who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental health disorder and/or substance use disorder, empirical research has shown that it is insufficient to treat only the mental disorder.  In contrast, the extant literature does show that targeting and treating suicidal ideation and behaviors, independent of diagnosis, hold the greatest promise for care of suicidal risk.  It is vital that direct intervention and treatment be provided for potential suicidality.  Care for persons at risk of suicide should be person-centered, where their personal needs, wishes, values, and resources become the foundation of developing a plan for their continuing care and safety.  Where appropriate and practical, families and significant others should be engaged and empowered as well.  Cultural values and preferences should be respected as much as possible. The Task Force has identified the following four components of care.

  1. Screening and Suicide Risk Assessment – Universal screening for suicide risk should be a universal part of Primary Care, Hospital Care (especially emergency department care), Behavioral Health Care, and Crisis Response settings (e.g., help lines, mobile teams, first responders, crisis chat services).  Any person who screens positive for possible suicide risk should be formally assessed for suicidal ideation, plans, availability of means, presence of acute risk factors (including history of suicide attempts), and level of risk.
  2. Intervening to increase coping to ensure safety – All persons identified as at risk of suicide by primary care practices and clinics, hospitals (esp. emergency departments), behavioral health organizations and crisis services should have a collaboratively designed safety plan prior to release from care.  This should include inquiring about means access and planning to restrict access to lethal means (balanced with respect to other obligations, including legal and ethical requirements under federal and state laws).
  3. Treating and caring for persons at-risk of suicide – Treatment and support of persons with suicide risk should be carried out in the least restrictive setting using research-guided practice techniques.
  4. Follow Up – Persons with suicidal risk leaving intervention and care settings should receive follow-up contact from the provider or caregiver.

Recommendations for Action – The Task Force has outlined a vision of care; attaining that vision will require organizational change and systematic and ongoing upgrading of clinical knowledge and skills.  Because the challenge may be great for some organizations, it will be important to offer strategies to motivate, support and sustain systemic improvements.  The following recommendations are offered to facilitate that process.

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task force charge

The National Action Alliance set forth a bold vision of our nation free from the tragedy of suicide.  For this vision to be achieved, substantial changes – if not transformation – are necessary in how this nation prevents suicide and intervenes with those at-risk of suicide.  The adage, “Suicide is everybody’s business,” must become a reality.

As major contributors to suicide prevention and intervention, public (including primary care, general medical care, emergency services and medical-surgical care) and behavioral health systems must make dramatic changes in how they perceive and address suicide.  The Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force focused its deliberations and recommendations on care in four environments: (1) Emergency Departments and Medical-Surgical Units; (2) Primary Care and General Medical Settings; (3) Behavioral Health Entities; and (4) Crisis Services.  And, while much of our concept of care lies in traditional face-to-face service delivery between clinicians and patients, the Task Force recognizes and has incorporated the growing practices of nontraditional, technology-based care (e.g., telephone lines, e-help, texting, blogs, and social networks).

The Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force began by looking for better interventions and tools to assist behavioral health clinicians and primary care professionals in engaging those at risk of suicide.  What were most compelling in the evaluation of different initiatives were the cultural and systems changes that formed the underpinnings of effective approaches.

Learning from these inspiring models requires a focus on core values; management strategies to effectuate changes reflecting those values; clinical practices based on knowledge of best practice models; and empowerment of clinicians and patients to work together as a team.  The Task Force vision is to sink the roots of effective suicide prevention into a framework that will grow into “Perfect Suicide Care” over future iterations of this model.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a potential framework for replication of suicide care in systems.  The following is the final report of the Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force.

The report summarizes the results of the investigative process used by the Task Force in studying major advances in suicide prevention in public and behavioral health systems.  It articulates key findings from the Task Force investigations and sets forth a vision of care.  This vision is based upon current understanding of best practice; it must be continually reevaluated against new findings from research and ensuing innovations in practice.  A series of recommendations are proposed for national and state action to move the country toward change.

The Task Force clearly recognizes that these recommendations are being issued in the context of the volatility facing the United States.  As the country struggles with a mounting national debt and competing perspectives on how to tame that debt, services for people in need will likely encounter rigorous review and many will face cuts.  Yet, millions of Americans are plagued with suicidal thoughts and over a million adults attempt suicide each year.  And, as the 10th leading cause – and perhaps most preventable form – of death of Americans, its effective prevention, and the relief of suffering Americans will not only save lives and untold anguish, but, also lead to savings and increased productivity by those whose lives we save and help by our actions.

task force process

The Task Force focused its environmental scan on a number of programs that have garnered attention for their novel approaches or unique outcomes. These programs included the following:

  • Air Force Suicide Prevention Program (AFSPP); 1996-2002
  • Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) “Perfect Depression Care;” 2001-present
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) “Suicide Risk Assessment Standards;” 2007-present
  • Central Arizona Programmatic Suicide Deterrent System Project; 2009-present

Learning about the Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) “Perfect Depression Care” initiative focused the attention of the Task Force.  Launched in 2001, the program achieved steep declines in the suicide rate during the first four years and focused on a broader group than those diagnosed with depression, including persons at risk of suicide.  More recently, HFHS has reported ten straight quarters without a suicide death for those enrolled in its Health Maintenance Organization.

The Task Force entered into its dialogue with HFHS focusing on key clinical interventions.  However, the HFHS lesson is that culture change focused on a goal of zero errors (deaths) was the essential foundation for improving interventions.  HFHS adopted these core values, which, in turn, catalyzed practices that have achieved unprecedented results.

In the weeks following the Henry Ford Health System presentation, the Task Force heard descriptions from the Central Arizona Programmatic Suicide Deterrent System Project, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program.  Similarly, these initiatives built their services with the foundational precept that suicide deaths were unacceptable outcomes. In each case, services were designed, restructured and implemented to achieve significant successes in the reduction of suicide deaths.  Brief summaries of each of these initiatives are found in Appendix A.

The Task Force heard that remarkable successes were achieved when leadership articulated and instituted the value that suicide deaths were preventable in their organizations; when staff embraced that value in their work and cultivated its infusion throughout the organization; and when patients felt empowered to disclose suicide risk and work with staff as a team to lower that risk and raise protective buffers.  Steps were taken to support staff by training in evidence-based or best practices, elevating their skills and confidence.  Further, a commitment to accountability, performance measurement and attendant quality improvement were featured in each organization.  Employing a systems approach to change, critical to the success of the four initiatives, is replicable in health and behavioral health organizations across the country.   The Task Force has selected this construct to convey its recommendations to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • Core Values – the belief and commitment that suicide can be eliminated in a population under care (boundaried population), by improving service access and quality and through continuous improvement (rendering suicide a “never event” for these populations);
  • Systems Management – taking systematic steps across systems of care to create a culture that no longer finds suicide acceptable, set aggressive but achievable goals to eliminate suicide attempts and deaths among members, and organize service delivery and support accordingly; and
  • Evidence-Based Clinical Care Practice – delivered through the system of care with a focus on productive patient/staff interactions. These methods (e.g., standardized risk stratification, targeted evidence-based clinical interventions, accessibility, follow-up and engagement and education of patients, families and healthcare professionals) achieve results.

core values:  beliefs and attitudes

Core values, beliefs and attitudes are the foundation for eliminating suicide deaths and attempts. Regardless of the setting, preventing suicide requires quality care.  Therefore, organizations and communities must come together to lay the foundation for effective suicide prevention.  Based on the successes of the Air Force, Henry Ford Health Service, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (the Lifeline), and Central Arizona Programmatic Suicide Deterrent System Project, as well as reviews with nationally and internationally renowned experts in suicide prevention, the Task Force asserts that the following four characteristics are instrumental to successfully reducing suicide deaths.

  1. Leadership leading to cultural transformation – While individual clinicians may work heroically to attempt to save patients seen as at high risk of suicide, too often the culture of behavioral health organizations may be marked by a deep pessimism regarding the possibility of dramatically reducing or eliminating suicide.  This stigma associated with suicide has led to avoidance behavior by far too many organizations and clinicians who could effectively reduce suicide risk and help patients build protective buffers and resilience.  Yet, as we have seen with HFHS, the Air Force, Magellan Health Services, and the Lifeline, leadership mobilizing staff to believe that suicide can be prevented has led to dramatic reductions in suicide deaths.  While it may sound simple, a major challenge for organizations to effectively eliminate suicide among their members requires them to instill the core belief that suicides can be prevented in their organization and to systemically manage service delivery around that core belief.  In some cases, this may be a complete cultural transformation in the organizational response to suicidal patients.
  2. Continuity of Care and Shared Service Responsibility – Just as the path to recovery and wellness for a heart attack victim requires multiple levels of care, treatment and patient lifestyle changes, so does the path to recovery and wellness for persons who face possible death by suicide.  To help keep suicidal individuals safe, cooperation and communication across these multiple levels of care is critical.  Care for suicide risk must be comprehensive and continuous until the risk is eliminated.  In the most efficacious chain of care, the person at risk is everyone’s responsibility.  Each setting has a critical role in verifying that the subsequent supportive services have the information and resources they can provide, which are pertinent to keeping the individual safe.  Treating the physical manifestations of a suicide attempt in an Emergency Department and sending the patient home with a discharge plan to seek therapy, for example, is insufficient care.  Persons presenting with suicide risk should be screened and assessed with intervention plans developed.   If required, treatment must be provided for the specific suicide risk, itself, as well as for any underlying conditions.  A safety plan should be designed collaboratively by the caregiver and patient.  Wherever feasible, care providers should seek to engage the individual in follow-up supports to bolster their continued safety, and to reinforce protective buffers by reducing feelings of isolation.

While some organizations may be able to deliver a full continuum of care, collaborative service arrangements will be required for others.  The Task Force recognizes that collaborative arrangements with providers or practitioners who can provide face-to-face assessment and intervention may not always be practicable.  A growing network of crisis services organizations can provide an effective option for face-to-face care.  Many, including the certified crisis centers in the Lifeline network, offer the capacity for trained persons to conduct remote assessments, linkage for care, and follow-up for persons at risk.  Effective communication from provider to provider; between provider and patient; among provider, patient and family; and from provider to other critical stakeholders is critical to continuity of care.

Too frequently, suicide risk provokes anxiety and avoidance behavior in clinicians.  Promoting a culture of shared responsibility and team care will mitigate clinicians’ anxiety, allowing them to address suicide risk appropriately.  The Henry Ford Health Service has implemented universal screening in its primary care clinics, but not without initial resistance from primary care physicians concerned about what to do for a patient they might detect with suicide risk.  To overcome that fear and resistance, HFHS made a promise to those physicians that they would be able to get a psychiatric consult within 24 hours for any patient they were concerned about.  In other words, they promised their physicians that “their backs would be covered.”  Collaboration and teamwork should be a value embraced by health and behavioral health organizations, incorporated into the management and performance measurement of each.

  1. Immediate Access to Care for All Persons in Suicidal Crisis – As noted by the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, “A Crisis has no schedule.” Therefore, effective treatment and support services to reduce suicidality must be made available to persons in crisis, how and when they need them.  In restructuring its behavioral health care system, HFHS now offers same-day drop-in care for persons in crisis.  Other behavioral health organizations should make this option available.  Explicit guidance from accrediting organizations and payment from health plans would encourage implementation of this practice.

Research indicates that 66 percent of persons who take their own lives were not receiving treatment for their suicide risk at the time of their death.  Unfortunately, stigma, cost barriers, distance, and lack of service availability (especially in rural areas) impede access to care.  While face-to-face therapy may be indicated for many persons in suicidal crisis, the aforementioned barriers may limit access to that care.  Virtual or remote care enables persons in crisis to access help 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.  Examples include telephone connections to crisis hotlines, telecounseling, short message services (SMS), and texting; and online access, using video counseling, crisis chat, self-assessment, and self-help.  Typically, this type of care is available at low or no-cost for persons seeking help.  And, it provides immediate access, convenience, and a higher level of anonymity for persons reluctant to engage in face-to-face therapy arrangements.  Access to such resources is critical for augmenting clinic-based care and private-practice offices, which usually have limited hours that may make services unavailable during a time of crisis.  They also provide alternatives to emergency departments, which are often less appropriate, expensive, and may have inhospitable waits.

  1. Productive Interactions between Persons at Risk and Persons Providing Care – The Planned or Chronic Care model asserts that improved patient outcomes are partly dependent upon productive interactions between informed, activated patients and prepared, proactive practice teams. The Task Force recommends broadening this construct to include any person seeking help and persons in a position to intervene to provide help, including clinicians, trained hotline staff and volunteers, and trained on-line staff and volunteers.  Persons contacting a potential helper must feel comfortable to disclose their desire to die and their thoughts of suicide.  They must feel confident that the potential caregiver will be accepting and in a position to offer nonjudgmental help.  Similarly, the person who may be doing the intervention must be willing to engage persons in a helping alliance around suicide risk, and they must be confident in their ability to help.  This confidence must arise from education and training in suicide risk management, including screening, risk assessment, safety planning, and, for those delivering care, treatment.
  2. Evaluate Performance and Use for Quality Improvement – As the Task Force heard stories of remarkable successes in reducing suicide deaths and suicidality, a consistently important element was creating a climate of continuous performance improvement. Deaths by suicide and suicide attempts represent adverse outcomes for health and behavioral health providers.  Applying a zero defect standard of care will mean that practitioners must review adverse outcomes related to suicide and adjust performance accordingly.  Robust performance improvement focused on the goal of zero suicides must become a central ingredient to managing practice and systems of care.  The Task Force is keenly aware that in the aftermath of suicide deaths there may be clinician survivors who will be in need of compassionate understanding and care themselves.  The delicate balance between relentlessly striving for zero suicides and creating a caring climate for those suffering from suicide loss, including clinicians themselves, will require careful management.  Nonetheless, the Task Force believes that a caring climate and quality improvement are symbiotic; they should not be sources of conflict.

systems management

Implementation and action for care excellence: Health and behavioral health organizations face daily challenges in organizing staff and other resources, directing patient flow, maintaining fiscal health, assessing system performance, balancing quantity of service with quality of care, etc.  Successfully embedding effective suicide prevention care into the organization must be carefully aligned with existing management structures and processes.  The Task Force recognizes that this will include many detailed decisions and close monitoring of operations.  Nonetheless, there are three broad areas that will be essential for managing a system of care around suicide prevention.

  1. Policies and Procedures – All health and behavioral health organizations should have specific written policies and procedures focused on the detection and response to persons presenting for care with suicide risk. Embedding suicide prevention responsibilities into the organization culture must be carefully planned and staff must clearly understand how to engage and respond to patients with suicide risk within the scope of their roles.  It is critical that organizations develop written policies and procedures to guide how staff responds to suicide risk.  The Task Force recommends that policies and procedures be based on a goal of suicide as a “never event.”  The policies and procedures should guide staff in every step of appropriately responding and helping persons with suicide risk in the context of their roles within the organization.  Procedures should stipulate tools to be employed if screening or assessing risk, and should articulate communication protocols with other members of the organization and with resources external to the organization.  Policies and procedures must clearly stipulate how to respond in the event of an emergency suicide situation.

Staff must be carefully trained on policies and procedures.  Every person in the organization, who may work in any capacity with a person at risk of suicide, must understand his or her role and know how to respond appropriately.  Refresher training should be offered regularly – at a minimum, annually.

Systems of care with multiple sites should establish uniform guidelines across these sites to assure that persons at risk are accorded similar care and treatment, with respect to what is appropriate for that site’s level of care.  One example of such a policy implemented on a broad scale, across multiple sites, is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Policy for Helping Callers at Imminent Risk of Suicide.

  1. Collaboration and Communication – Responding to suicide risk should be premised on collaborative care characterized by direct and open communication with persons at risk of suicide and timely and effective communication patterns with all personnel who are collaborating in the person’s care. Clinical staff working in isolation may avoid asking about suicidal thinking as they may not know what to do if the answer is “yes” or may not have adequate community resources to support care for suicidal patients.  Team care fosters connectedness, which is a potent protective buffer against fear of working with persons who may be at risk of suicide, just as connectedness acts as a protective buffer for persons having thoughts of suicide.   As was demonstrated so clearly in the Henry Ford Health Services experience, medical staff who were guaranteed psychiatric backup when they felt it was needed were far less resistant to screening patients for suicidality and taking appropriate actions in response to positive screens.  Thus, it is important for management practice to emphasize collaborative care.

Effective collaborative care requires effective communication.  All persons addressing suicidality among patients at risk must have full knowledge of screening and assessment results, and knowledge of steps taken to work with the patient.  To the degree possible, care decisions should be made in a team environment with shared decision making and shared responsibility for care.  The team must include the patient and his or her family, whenever possible and appropriate.

  1. Trained and Skilled Work Force – Public and behavioral health organizations should assure that staff working with persons with suicide risk have been appropriately trained and possess requisite skills. Too many clinical staff lack the knowledge and skills to provide appropriate and effective responses to suicide.  Even expertly trained mental health professionals who have not been trained in suicide risk assessment and treatment are likely to assess and treat for “underlying” disorders and avoid the essential tasks of directly assessing and treating the person’s suicidality.  Lacking specific training in suicide care undermines clinical confidence in addressing suicidality.  That lack of clinical confidence contributes heavily to avoidance behavior.

Developing clinical competence was an important part of the success stories the Task Force heard.  For example, HFHS trained its clinical staff in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, while Magellan trained its staff in ASIST.  In each case, clinician confidence soared.  Clinicians felt empowered to care for persons presenting with suicide risk, which contributed substantially to dramatic reductions in suicide attempts and deaths seen in those systems.

evidence-based clinical care practice

Comprehensive quality care to save lives: Because the stakes are sometimes life or death, suicide risk management demands comprehensive care using services and supports marked by excellence.  Unfortunately, across health and behavioral health organizations, the quality of care for suicide is marred by inconsistency and wide variability.  At both the organizational and practitioner levels, too often, we find the landscape of care clouded by fear, avoidance and inappropriate interactions with persons at risk of suicide.  Stigmatization overshadows suicide in much the same way it does with chemical abuse and mental illness.

Some organizations avoid suicidal patients due to a fatalistic misperception that if someone has a desire to take his or her life, the outcome is inevitable, when the opposite is true: effective and compassionate interventions can alter that course and bring renewed desires for life.  Similarly, clinicians too often lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to address suicidality.  This breeds a culture of avoidance, resulting in unnecessary emergency care, and inappropriate referrals for inpatient services.  When care is provided, lack of skills in suicide-specific treatment may lead to care for underlying conditions such as depression, without directly treating the suicidality.  In some helping organizations, a history of prior suicide attempts and/or current suicidal ideations, unnecessarily rules out admission or continuing care.

Caring for someone with disclosed risk of suicide requires knowledge and skills to manage risk appropriately.  Further, it requires mastering the emotional trepidation of helping someone who may kill him- or herself.  The possibility of losing a patient to suicide can provoke anxiety over the possibility of making a clinical error that leads to the patient’s death.  Both clinicians and organizations often fear that losing a person to suicide may result in costly litigation.  For example, physicians in primary care practice may be concerned about how to respond should a person disclose suicidal thoughts, and, therefore, not ask about suicide.  Skill development, practice using those skills, and a culture of shared responsibility demonstrated by team care will build the essential clinical confidence to engage and care for patients at risk of suicide.

While there is still a relative dearth of research to guide practitioners in care, some important research to guide practice does exist.  Tools and methods to help detect risk, conduct assessments, intervene for safety, and deliver quality treatment and support are available.  Again, they are not widely employed, and, many practitioners are unaware of these tools.

Especially in emergency departments and primary care, arguments are raised that time limitations prohibit infusing simple screening procedures.  It is important to remember that, at one time, it was not routine to take blood pressures, conduct urinalysis, test for cholesterol, or conduct mammograms and prostate exams.  These protocols now are employed because they provide early warning of disease and save lives.  Simple suicide screens are also early warning signs of danger, and their use saves lives.

To overcome inconsistent and inadequate care, practice methods should employ evidence-based care, or where that is not a possibility, best practices.  The national Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) maintains an ever-expanding list of programs that meet either the standards of evidence-based care through the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP) or the principles of best practice.  Suicide prevention care should utilize those standards or principles.  As new methods and innovations arise, practitioners should evaluate them rigorously and ensure that those methods are reviewed and included in the SPRC registry.  Accrediting and credentialing organizations should promote evidence-based and best practice suicide prevention care for organizations and practitioners they accredit or credential.

Care for persons at risk of suicide should be person-centered, where their personal needs, wishes, values, and resources should be the foundation for a continuing care and safety plan.  Where appropriate and practical, families and significant others should be engaged and empowered as well.  People experiencing suicidal ideations feel embarrassed, guilty and fearful of disclosing their thoughts and feelings.  Health and behavioral caregivers can defuse those feelings and make it more comfortable for persons to disclose.  Disclosure is one of the first steps in help-seeking, which is a very potent protective factor against suicide.  Clinicians must have the skills to guard against exacerbating the patient’s fear to disclose.  The inadvertently judgmental or condemning clinician, or the clinician who exhibits fear of the patient’s suicidal thoughts, may cause the patient to resist help-seeking in the future, thereby elevating suicide risk.

Direct and open communication patterns, engagement of persons important to the person at risk, and empowering the person to partner in designing his or her care plan are important aspects of engaging and empowering persons at risk. One example was developed by Task Force member, Dr. David Jobes, in the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS).  One simple strategy he espouses is not to sit behind a desk while assessing and developing treatment plans with patients.  Rather, he advises sitting side-by-side with the patient at certain points during clinical engagement to work through an assessment/treatment planning tool, thereby creating a greater sense of equality and partnership in the helping relationship.  Engaging, empowering and motivating patients and their families help promote productive interactions with clinicians and should be an integral aspect of treating suicide risk.

In the Core Values section, the Task Force identified continuity of care and shared service responsibility as critical building blocks to effective care.  Four elements of care are offered below, which should be incorporated in designing a continuing care service structure.

Using evidence-based or best practice principles, care should be patient-centered and planned.

The following four elements of a care continuum must be included in any community’s suicide prevention design: (1) screening and assessment for suicide risk, (2) intervention (safety planning, means restriction), (3) treatment responses (including direct treatment or referral depending on the setting and degree of risk), and (4) follow-up processes.

The sections below briefly summarize how each should be addressed in the four care environments included in this report (i.e., primary and general health care, emergency departments and medical-surgical care, behavioral health care, and crisis services).  More thorough descriptions of each element follow.

Primary Care Setting

CONCERNS ABOUT CURRENT PRACTICE

  • There is a National recommendation to screen for depression; however, practice is rare.
  • Resources are available, such as PHQ-9, PHQ-9 modified teen version, TeenScreen Program and HHS-SAMHSA SAFE-T cards, but implementation of existing recommendations is variable.
  • PCP’s time is limited to focusing on the presenting problem, so a suicide risk screen is not a priority.

SCREENING & ASSESSMENT

  • Screen every patient for suicide risk by asking 1+ questions related to suicide risk during their intake questionnaire and when otherwise indicated. PHQ-9 is one such tool.
  • Positive screens result in a referral to a trained behavioral health expert for a comprehensive assessment. This may involve establishing relationships with local behavioral health providers, including crisis centers.
  • The “Is your patient suicidal” poster is placed in all PCP settings.
  • Personnel in each PCP setting should determine the most practical method of implementing these recommendations in their practice.
  • National Guidelines should be developed to promote best practices and provide specific tools to assist PCP’s in suicide prevention.

INTERVENTION & TREATMENT

  • PCPs collaborate with behavioral health to determine the most appropriate level of intervention.
  • Develop a collaboratively designed safety plan.
  • Inquire about means and restrict access to means.
  • Pharmacologic care.
  • Address suicide risk directly.
  • Make appropriate referrals to behavioral health & maintain communication.
  • Encourage patients to follow through with therapy visits.

FOLLOW-UP

  • Make follow-up contact with all suicidal patients, e.g., “caring letters” or follow-up calls.

ED- Medical/ Surgical

CONCERNS ABOUT CURRENT PRACTICE

  • The ‘Is your patient suicidal?’ poster (publication of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center) is recommended but not commonly placed in EDs.
  • There is wide variance between and within EDs surrounding suicide risk screening and assessment.
  • EDs may utilize in-house psychiatric staff or social workers, outside crisis agencies, or other behavioral health professionals to provide suicide risk assessments.

SCREENING & ASSESSMENT

  • All patients, when feasible, are assessed for suicide risk with one or more questions addressing suicidality on the intake questionnaire.
  • Positive screens lead to comprehensive assessment by a behavioral health professional, whether onsite or by other methods.
  • The “Is your patient suicidal” poster is placed in all EDs.
  • Personnel in each ED setting should determine the most practical method of implementing these recommendations in their practice.
  • National Guidelines should be developed to promote best practices and provide specific tools to assist ED personnel in suicide prevention.

INTERVENTION & TREATMENT

  • Collaborate with behavioral health to determine the most appropriate level of intervention and safety plan.
  • Inquire about means and restrict access to means.
  • Pharmacologic care.
  • Inpatient psychiatric care for high risk patients.
  • Develop plan with patient to reduce emotional distress & suicidal feelings.
  • Make informed referrals for treatment on release from hospital based on assessment & needs of the patient.
  • Referrals should be made to providers that can see the patient within 24-72 hours of discharge.

FOLLOW-UP

  • Develop some method of follow-up contact with persons leaving care.

Behavioral Health

CONCERNS ABOUT CURRENT PRACTICE

  • There is a lack of National consensus standards and agency consistency. As a result, individual and agency variability is great.
  • A suicide risk screen is completed at intake.
  • The type, depth, and frequency of screening and assessment vary among clinicians.
  • Tools, such as the HHS-SAHMSA SAFE-T card are available but may not be used regularly.

SCREENING & ASSESSMENT

  • Each individual is screened for suicide risk at every point of contact with a behavioral health professional.
  • If the screen is positive, a comprehensive suicide risk assessment is completed, using at a minimum, the factors of desire, intent, capability & buffers.
  • Level of acuity of risk is determined based on the outcome of the assessment.
  • National suicide risk screening & assessment standards, including training requirements, are developed, implemented & evaluated for behavioral health settings.

INTERVENTION & TREATMENT

  • Collaborate with other providers to determine the most appropriate level of intervention and safety plan.
  • Evidenced-based interventions aimed at reducing risk of suicide are identified & implemented.
  • Inquire about means and restrict access to means.
  • Pharmacologic care.
  • Develop plan with patient to reduce emotional distress & suicidal feelings.
  • Build therapeutic alliances with patients and use research guided techniques to treat suicidality.

FOLLOW-UP

  • Develop some method of follow-up contact with persons leaving care.

Crisis

CONCERNS ABOUT CURRENT PRACTICE

  • Suicide risk assessment is usually completed at all crisis contacts.
  • There is wide variance in this group with regard to training, reporting requirements, and the risk assessment tool utilized.

SCREENING & ASSESSMENT

  • Each individual is screened for suicide risk at every point of contact with a Crisis professional.
  • If the screen is positive, a comprehensive suicide risk assessment is completed, using at a minimum the factors of desire, intent, capability & buffers.
  • Level of acuity of risk is determined based on the outcome of the assessment.
  • National suicide risk screening and assessment standards, including training requirement, are developed, implemented & evaluated.

INTERVENTION & TREATMENT

  • Collaborate with other providers to determine the most appropriate level of intervention.
  • Evidenced-based interventions aimed at reducing risk of suicide are identified & implemented.
  • Develop a collaboratively designed safety plan.
  • Inquire about means and restrict access to means.
  • Referral to appropriate treatment provider, mobile crisis team, EDs’ or outpatient clinics.

FOLLOW-UP

  • Use of caring letters, follow-up calls or online communication.

4 critical clinical care elements

The following describes the four critical clinical care elements that must be addressed in treating suicidal persons.

  1. Screening and Suicide Risk Assessment Screening for suicide risk should be a universal part of Primary Care, Hospital Care (especially emergency department care), Behavioral Health Care, and Crisis Response intervention. Any person who screens positive for possible suicide risk should be formally assessed for suicidal ideation, plans, means availability, presence of acute risk factors (including history of suicide attempts), and level of risk.  Other than during the treatment for a medical emergency, every person contacting medical and behavioral health care should be screened for suicide using a standardized, simple tool.  There has been growing recognition and use of tools to screen for depression and alcohol abuse.  Because of the potential lethality of a suicide attempt, a screening should be done for thoughts of killing oneself and self-harm.  Appendix B offers some examples of potential screening instruments.

Recently, Medicare added procedure codes to screen for depression for Medicare patients.  There are two simple questions that Medicare will reimburse physicians for asking.  These questions ask patients to report whether, over the past two weeks, they have been bothered by little interest or pleasure in doing things and whether they have been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless.  A simple question relating to suicide and self-harm should be added to these questions.  The question could simply ask how much the patient has been bothered by feeling better off dead or wanting to hurt him- or herself.  The Task Force calls on other insurance carriers to follow Medicare’s example and reimburse for this type of simple screening process

As occurred at Henry Ford Health Service, the Task Force recognizes that physicians may be concerned about asking this type of question without resources to help them respond to identified risk.  It is essential that physicians and hospitals have access to behavioral health support for patients that have positive responses to suicide screens.  Such support can be forged from local mental health providers or could be provided remotely (e.g., telephone, on-line) by crisis service organizations.  State and local government health and mental health organizations can help provide the impetus for forging critical local relationships.

A useful tool for hospital emergency departments is a poster developed by a Task Force operating under the auspices of the American Association of Suicidology,* which was contracted for it by SPRC.  The poster lists warning signs, simple steps to follow, and provides the Lifeline telephone number.  Evaluations of this poster have demonstrated success at raising awareness and response by emergency departments to responding to suicide risk.  The Task Force recommends that similar posters be developed and distributed for primary care, ambulatory care, long-term care and other health care situations, and that posters focus on screening, assessment, and risk factors appropriate for each setting.

Regardless of the setting, if the screen yields a positive result for potential suicide risk, then a full assessment should be completed.  The assessment should be completed by a professional with appropriate and specific training in assessing for and evaluating suicide risk.  This professional must have the skills to engage patients in crisis and to elicit candid disclosures of suicide risk in a non-threatening environment.

The assessment should include the following critical factors related to suicide risk:*

  • Suicidal desire, including suicidal ideation, psychological pain, hopelessness, helplessness, perceived burden on others, feeling trapped, and feeling intolerably alone;
  • Suicidal capability, including history of suicide attempts, exposure to someone else’s death by suicide, available means of killing self/others, currently intoxicated, substance abuse, acute symptoms of mental illness, and extreme agitation/rage;
  • Suicidal intent, including attempt in progress, plan to kill self/others, preparatory behaviors, and expressed intent to die; and
  • Buffers/connectedness, including immediate supports, social supports, planning for the future, engagement with helper, ambivalence for living/dying, core values/beliefs, and sense of purpose.

A person identified at risk of suicide should also be assessed for level of risk and the most appropriate care environment in his or her community to address risk and care needs.  The first priority in the ensuing care plan is safety.  Patients assessed as having a clear intention to taking their lives will require higher levels of safety protection than those with less of a commitment toward dying.  Some imminent-risk persons (e.g., persons with command hallucinations and ready access to lethal means) may require inpatient care because of the need for increased level of supervision and higher intensity of care.  Many high-risk persons with appropriate supports and safety plans, however, may be better served in a community care setting with adequate support.

For behavioral health and crisis services organizations, it is expected that staff will conduct the risk assessment either on site or remotely.  For primary and hospital care, there are different methods for conducting suicide risk assessments.  Health services can designate trained clinical personnel to conduct them.  However, the Task Force acknowledges that many primary and emergency service providers will have neither the staff resources nor the expertise to conduct adequate assessments and to complete referrals fully.  As such, these public health service providers can also work under agreement with behavioral health organizations or with behavioral health professionals in private practices to conduct assessments.

While face-to-face assessments are preferable, in some cases they may not be practicable.  Therefore, assessments could be conducted by trained professionals from remote sites with nurses or other health services personnel sitting with the patient.  In some rural areas where behavioral health services and trained staff are less available to conduct risk assessments in emergency or primary care settings, another option may be for these settings to conference in (via video or telephonically) mental health professionals trained in conducting risk assessments.  Some telepsychiatry services and Lifeline member crisis centers are currently performing such functions effectively in some of these settings.

Appendix B also provides examples of risk assessment instruments.

  1. Intervening to increase coping to ensure safety – All persons identified as at-risk of suicide by primary care practices and clinics, hospitals (esp. emergency departments), behavioral health organizations and crisis services should have a collaboratively designed safety plan prior to release from care, which includes inquiring about means access and planning to restrict access to means. The safety plan should give the patient techniques and resources to relieve recurring suicidal thoughts at home.  These could include strategies for mitigating intolerable distress and pain, with specific steps for seeking support and help if thoughts of death and suicide become intrusive.  Further, the safety plan would include lethal means restriction strategies (balanced with respect to other obligations, including legal and ethical requirements under federal and state laws).  Limiting access to medications, chemicals, and removing or locking firearms and other weapons are important actions to keep patients safe.  If the patient is living with his or her family, safety and referral plans should be discussed and coordinated with the family (with patient consent).  The roles of family members in safety plans and implementing referrals should be developed collaboratively with them as full partners in the process.    

Behavioral health and crisis services organizations should routinely incorporate safety planning and means restrictions strategies in their care.  For persons who continue treatment with a behavioral health organization, compliance with safety planning should be an ongoing facet of the treatment contract.  Where hospitals, primary care clinics and physician offices have resources to carry out assessments, safety planning should become routine parts of the assessment, referral and discharge process.  For those primary care settings and hospitals without the resources to assess for care, safety planning and means restrictions strategies can be carried out by a designated behavioral health entity, including crisis service organizations (e.g., staff at local Lifeline crisis centers, mobile crisis teams).

  1. Treating suicide riskTreatment of persons with suicide risk should be carried out in the least restrictive setting using research-guided practice techniques. While the Task Force recommends the use of evidence-based practice (i.e., research-driven practice based on randomized clinical trial designs), it recognizes the relative paucity of such research to guide practice.  In a best practices overview report written for Veterans Affairs’ providers (authored by Drs. David Jobes, Mark De Santis and Donald Myrick),  the authors found only 49 randomized clinical trials in the world’s literature.  (The report is found in Appendix C.)   In this review, the authors make the following observations:
  • There is limited evidence of the overall efficaciousness of pharmacotherapy-only treatment for suicidal risk;
  • Similarly, there is limited evidence to support the widespread use of inpatient psychiatric hospitalization for suicidal patients;
  • Follow-up interventions and case management treatment have demonstrated a significant impact on reducing suicide behaviors including deaths;
  • Thus far, certain coping oriented psychotherapies have the most research support for effectively treating suicidal risk. In particular, the research supports highly-structured, problem solving approaches.  The following evidence-based approaches are highlighted in the overview report:
    • Dialectical Behavior Therapy – the most thoroughly studied and efficacious psychotherapy for suicidal behavior
    • Cognitive Therapy – the next most studied and supported suicide-relevant psychotherapy
    • Other Promising Interventions – The authors cited two other interventions that exhibit strong correlational support and are now being studied in randomized clinical trials – Safety Planning Intervention and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality

The Task Force acknowledges that hospitals may provide inpatient psychiatric care for some patients at extremely high risk of suicide (e.g., those with command hallucinations, weapon availability and recent prior attempts).  However, hospitals generally should make informed referrals for treatment on the patient’s release from hospital care, including emergency departments.  The referral would be based on the assessment and needs of the patient.  For patients in severe emotional distress, referrals should be to providers or practitioners that can see the patient within 24 – 72 hours.  These providers should have the capability of providing intensive community care, including outpatient care.

Primary care physicians can play important roles in treating suicide risk.  Where pharmacologic care is part of the treatment plan, primary care physicians can monitor this aspect of care, especially for lower and mid-risk patients.  Primary care physicians may be the practitioner with whom persons feel most comfortable confiding.  As such, physicians can be pivotal in making the connection to therapeutic care for patients, and in convincing patients to follow through with therapy visits.

Crisis lines, online crisis chat services and other emerging technology-based care (e.g., text help) may be the only contact some at-risk persons have with individuals and organizations that can deliver help.  Some people may prefer the potential anonymity of a telephone or a computer to a face-to-face encounter.  Or, they may live in rural areas where the nearest services are at such a distance that traveling to them poses a substantial barrier.  They may have no or inadequate health insurance and be unable to afford traditional in-person care.  Seeking help remotely is a growing phenomenon with demonstrated effectiveness.

SAMHSA-funded evaluations of crisis call centers have demonstrated that they can be effective at significantly reducing emotional distress and suicidality.  Such services should become a critical element of the network of suicide prevention organizations, not only as stand-alone care service organizations, but also as partners in care for primary and emergency care health organizations.

It was noted earlier that persons must be assessed for suicide.  Similarly, treatment must be directly focused on reducing suicidality.  Focusing on treating depression, chemical dependence or other issues without directly treating suicidality is insufficient and inadequate care.  Behavioral health organizations must build therapeutic alliances around the patient’s suicidality and use research-guided techniques to treat suicide risk.  This clearly means that clinicians must have the knowledge and skills to treat suicidality.  Concurrent treatment can address other problems including underlying mental disorders, but there must be a treatment plan directed specifically at treating suicide risk.  As with the assessment and safety plan, the treatment plan should be developed collaboratively with the patient empowering him or her to take actions necessary to reduce emotional distress and pain, to better regulate their emotions, and develop more effective interpersonal skills.  In many, if not most cases, treating suicidality can be short-term, and the clinician should strive toward the total elimination of suicidal feelings.

  1. Follow UpPersons with suicidal risk leaving intervention and care settings should receive follow-up contact from the provider or caregiver. While contacting persons with suicide risk who have left care may appear to be a nice frill to formal service delivery, there is promising research that demonstrates its efficacy in reducing emotional distress and suicide deaths.  From the “caring letters” intervention studies of suicidal inpatients by Dr. Jerome Motto and colleagues,* it was found that a simple follow-up letter expressing concern for the patient’s welfare caused significantly fewer deaths.  Similarly, Dr. Madelyn Gould** and a SAMHSA-funded evaluation team have conducted research on follow-up calls made to persons who contacted the National Lifelines number.  In this study, 90 percent of respondents indicated that the calls helped somewhat or a great deal in keeping them safe and 54 percent indicated that the calls helped significantly with keeping them from killing themselves.  The research on suicide risk has demonstrated that isolation and lack of connectedness elevate suicidality considerably.  Knowing that someone cares as shown by follow-up contact helps persons feel less isolated and connected building buffers against suicide.

Given the evidence, the Task Force recommends that regardless of setting, some method of follow-up contact should be made with persons at risk leaving care, particularly those leaving acute care settings such as emergency departments and inpatient units.  These interventions should be seen as integral to care, not merely a nice option.  Many crisis services have already instituted follow-up calls, and, the Task Force recommends that this become a universal practice.  Online crisis chat services can follow up with online messages.  Primary care and hospital based services should develop methods that work best for them in following up on patients with suicide risk.  Again, behavioral health partners may be able to carry out that function for the provider or practitioner.  For example, pilot projects with Lifeline crisis centers that have followed up with at-risk individuals discharged from inpatient and emergency department settings have shown promise in reducing risk, subsequent suicide attempts and hospital readmissions.

The Task Force believes that making suicide a never event must be the nation’s vision.  Public and behavioral health organizations save countless lives every day.  By creating an organizational culture where suicide attempts and deaths are unacceptable events, and managing a care environment around that cultural shift, even more lives can be saved.

Figure 2 captures the critical elements leading to suicide prevention through systems change.

* Other members include the Emergency Nurses Association, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry.

* The four factors were taken from: Joiner, Thomas, PhD et.al. Establishing Standards for the Assessment of Suicide Risk Among Callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior: 37 (3). June 2007.

* Motto JA, Bostrom AG: A randomized controlled trial of postcrisis suicide prevention. Psychiatric Services 52:828–833, 2001.

** Gould, Madelyn: Presentation to Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force.  July 15, 2011.

2018-08-18_14-29-38recommendations for action

Project Connect of NAMI New Hampshire promotes, “It takes a community to prevent suicide.”  The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s vision of a nation free from the tragedy of suicide means that the American community must mobilize for action, embracing a shared-responsibility philosophy, and accepting the challenge of change.  The Task Force has outlined a vision of care; attaining that vision will require organizational change, and systematic and ongoing upgrading of clinical knowledge and skills.  Recognizing the challenge may be great for some organizations, it will be important to offer strategies to motivate, support and sustain systemic improvements.  The following recommendations are offered to facilitate that process.

Recommendation 1: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should spearhead two public-private task forces to catalyze change strategies recommended in this report.  To effectuate change requires that health and behavioral health organizations and practitioners embrace a zero suicide goal, and manage operations to achieve it.  Change also requires that clinicians and caregivers working with suicidal persons have the knowledge and skill sets to engage persons in care successfully and to deliver effective services.

Recommendation 1A: DHHS should convene a task force charged with identifying and implementing strategies to mobilize and facilitate public and behavioral health organizational change, including collaborations among organizations to promote continuity of care for persons at risk of suicide.  Taking on suicide remains a daunting challenge.  Yet, the U.S. Air Force, Henry Ford Health Services, Magellan Health Services, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have demonstrated that dramatic successes in reducing suicide deaths can be realized.  Determined leaders in these organizations opened the door to cultural transformation.  These models are replicable and adaptable for other providers and practitioners.  National leadership can facilitate more success stories, which should begin to build on each other.  The proposed task force would promote suicide as a never event in boundaried health/behavioral health organizations.  The Task Force’s membership should include HRSA, SAMHSA and other relevant agencies; professional organizations (e.g., American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, American Nursing Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association); accrediting bodies, including the Joint Commission and CARF; suicide prevention experts; state health, mental health and chemical abuse prevention, treatment and recovery leaders; and health, behavioral health and crisis service leaders from across the country, and SPRC.  This Task Force would become an emissary for system transformation, marketing successes, and challenging system change.

Recommendation 1B: DHHS should convene a task force charged with incorporating suicide detection, risk formulation and prevention in the preparatory training of clinicians across the country.  In talking to national experts, the Task Force heard that many, if not most, clinicians are insufficiently prepared to address suicide risk across the country.  Professionals lacking the education and skill to address suicide will likely be fearful to engage persons seeking help in a care relationship.  Screening and assessment processes will often not be delivered or provided inadequately.  As new physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, mental health counselors, etc., are trained, it is vital that some level of suicide training be incorporated within their curricula.  DHHS should engage a consortium minimally consisting of HRSA, SAMHSA and other relevant federal agencies; professional organizations (e.g., American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, NASW, American Association of Colleges of Nursing); key colleges and universities; representative leaders from the professions; licensing boards; experts in suicide prevention practice; and SPRC.  Making suicide a never event requires elevation of clinical preparedness.  The federally-convened task force should serve as the engine for appropriately embedding suicide prevention education into clinical training, beginning at college and graduate school levels.  While the curricula will differ across disciplines, certain core principles of detection and care should be incorporated. The effort should focus on how to incorporate curricula within existing preparatory training programs.

Recommendation 2:  State suicide prevention lead agencies, other relevant state agencies, and key stakeholders (e.g., health, mental health, addiction services, child serving, aging or social services agencies) should consider incorporating strategies to promote suicide as a never event within state health and behavioral health organizations as one critical element for updating or advancing their state plans.  In the first recommendation, the Task Force calls for national leadership employing public-private consortia to promote suicide prevention in health care/behavioral health care organizations and to incorporate suicide prevention training in clinical preparation programs.  The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention Task Force is reviewing the current National Strategy for Suicide Prevention with an eye toward updating it and proposing revisions.  The Clinical Care and Intervention Task Force recognizes that the states have responded to the current National Strategy with suicide prevention plans and have taken impressive measures to promote and implement suicide prevention strategies within their jurisdictions.  The Task Force recommends that state leadership be exercised to enrich existing suicide prevention plans by creating and articulating the goal of suicide as a never event in health and behavioral health organizations.

States should build on existing suicide prevention partnerships to include a broader spectrum of public health and behavioral health stakeholders to update state plans and implement wider strategies.  Under the leadership of the state suicide prevention lead agencies, task forces could be formed similar to those proposed nationally to catalyze systems change in health and behavioral health organizations within each state.  Partnerships among state agencies and other key organizations representing public health, mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, aging and others can adopt suicide prevention goals that bolster their capacity to identify, assess, intervene, treat, and follow-up with persons at risk.  For home-bound, high-risk individuals, it may be that care managers, visiting nurses, home health aides, etc. are the care professionals that provide life-saving services, and should be reflected in state efforts.

Additionally, states could create local task forces to work with colleges and universities to incorporate suicide prevention education and training within curricula for persons preparing to become clinicians.  Education agencies, public and private university leaders and associations, should partner with suicide prevention leads, and suicide prevention experts to adapt curricula to include effective suicide prevention education.

Recommendation 3:  All health and behavioral health care accrediting organizations should create guidance to organizations on elevating suicide prevention practice in accredited organizations from clinical settings to health plans.  Accredited organizations should set goals of reducing suicide and self harm, and take progressive steps to implement and measure progress, with an ultimate goal of zero deaths among members/patients.  Accrediting organizations hold considerable sway with organizations they accredit.  As such, standards of care they create, and/or guidance they issue can provide a powerful stimulus for organizations to improve clinical practice.  For example, the Joint Commission demonstrated the power of accrediting and licensing organizations to motivate enhanced suicide practice in 24-hour care with the release of revised National Patient Safety Goals.   The Task Force calls on all health and behavioral health accrediting organizations to review their standards with respect to suicide prevention and care.  They should issue clinical guidance to organizations that they accredit to elevate suicide prevention practice.  In response, accredited organizations should adopt and implement steps to reduce suicide and self-harm with the goal of eliminating suicides among persons who receive care from them.

As members of the National Action Alliance, the Joint Commission and CARF have discussed the potential of issuing joint guidance on suicide prevention to their respective constituencies.  The Task Force applauds the two organizations’ intentions.  The Task Force recommends that guidance be focused on elevating practice in emergency and ambulatory care, and in behavioral health settings.  Further, the Task Force suggests that the two organizations involve other critical stakeholders in their deliberations, including (but not limited to) the Lifeline, the AMA, the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP), and other appropriate accrediting organizations.  The Lifeline can assist with structuring guidance on community resources available to public health settings, and with how to share responsibilities for assessment, safety planning and ongoing treatment referrals with local crisis centers.  By incorporating the medical associations into the process, it can provide a platform for these associations to issue guidance on improving suicide prevention practice to their constituencies, including physicians in private or group practices, which may further increase the potential for saving lives.

Recommendation 4:  All health and behavioral health plans and providers should develop plans to reduce suicide and self harm. They should select evidence-based and best practices that are relevant to their mission that can reduce suicide and self harm, and implement and monitor the impact of these efforts.  Health plans should commit to reducing suicide and self harm among their members, using the strategies outlined in this report.  Suicide among health plan members and populations under care in clinical settings should be defined as a never event and subjected to quality improvement efforts such as root cause analysis. The Task Force has recommended that primary and general health care providers, emergency care departments and behavioral health organizations adopt and implement suicide prevention as a critical organizational goal, with the ultimate aim of eliminating suicides.  Augmenting this recommendation is the call for state and national leadership to cultivate this transformational shift, and accrediting organizations to issue guidance for setting and implementing this goal.  Health and behavioral plans can also influence suicide prevention practice.  For example, Medicare has instituted a new procedure code that reimburses physicians for simple depression screening.  Adding one suicide prevention screening question would allow physicians to address suicide concomitantly.  The Task Force calls on other health plans to reimburse for depression and suicide risk screening.

Recommendation 5:  National guidance should be created for providing suicide prevention care through technology-based services (e.g., telephone crisis hotlines, on-line crisis chat services).  Too many people experiencing thoughts of suicide do not seek necessary care.  The reasons are numerous and well-known – shame, fear, lack of access to services, and cost, for example.  A rapidly growing help technology exists through care that can be accessed by telephone or on line.  While telephone hotlines have existed for decades, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and its network of crisis centers have given the field a robust resource for remote care to people who cannot or will not seek help in person.  One state has developed a psychiatrist-staffed hotline for primary care physicians.  A growing technology exists with on-line care in the form of crisis chat services and e-therapy, which are also piloted at a number of crisis centers around the nation.  Social media sites offer the potential to be a further resource for providing outreach to those in need, offering information and linkages to online chat, telephonic or other vehicles where intervention and prevention assistance can be delivered.  In addition, there are emerging technologies for providing assistance through texting.  As technological advances continue to expand, the potential of offering timely care rises dramatically.  While many of the services being delivered are being provided by persons with expert training, there are few standards governing care delivery via technology.  To address this concern, in 2011, the Lifeline; Trevor Project; and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network have formed the Online Crisis Support Consortium, consisting of a number of national leaders in online crisis intervention, to ascertain and promote promising practices and successful approaches in web-based and mobile communications.  Appendix D describes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s values, policies and guidelines for care.

The Task Force has recommended that public health providers consider collaborating with nearby Lifeline crisis centers as one resource for conducting assessment, intervention and referral of persons at risk of suicide.  Clearly, similar collaborative strategies could be applied to online care as it grows over time.  The Task Force recommends that DHHS convene a national advisory group with the specific purpose of issuing guidance to the field regarding care delivered via technology.  This should cover engaging persons at risk, screening, risk assessment, safety planning, effective referral strategies, follow-up, and how to intervene in an emergency situation.  It is also important to increase evaluation and research studies on technology-based services.

Recommendation 6:  The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) should build on its current record of success by increasing its capacity to assist local suicide prevention services in two major areas.  For almost a decade, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center has served as a valuable national technical assistance, resource and infrastructure-building center.  The Task calls for two specific efforts to augment SPRC’s current infrastructure and function.

Recommendation 6a:  Regional Centers of Excellence on Suicide Prevention should be established under the auspices of the national Suicide Prevention Resource Center to deliver training, technical assistance and consultation to communities, providers and practitioners.  In the first recommendation, the Task Force called for a National Task Force to identify strategies for infusing suicide prevention education into clinical preparation programs.  Incorporating suicide prevention education into clinical preparation training will better prepare the future workforce but will not address knowledge and skills deficits in the current workforce.  Therefore, the Task Force recommends establishing Regional Centers of Excellence located strategically throughout the country to elevate skills in the existing workforce.  In establishing Regional Centers, SPRC should strategically include critical stakeholders and partners in their design, implementation and governance.  This could include SAMHSA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Surgeon General, and other critical experts.  The Regional Centers of Excellence could be based in university settings, crisis centers, training and clinical organizations, or other suitable venues.  Regional Centers could locate all the assistance under one organization, or the functions could be distributed among a number of organizations.  The Regional Centers would function as local branches of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

The Centers should serve as local resources for assisting the field with suicide prevention.  A similar network exists in the addiction field, the Addiction Technology Transfer Centers (ATTC), which are located regionally around the country.  The ATTC’s provide technology transfer, workforce development, training, distance education, research translation, product dissemination, technical assistance, and systems change support.  The proposed Regional Centers would provide most, if not all, of these same functions, and be linked to SAMHSA, the Lifeline and other national suicide prevention efforts.  Additionally, the Regional Centers of Excellence should be equipped to provide consultation to clinical staff on difficult issues such as local suicide clusters or contagions.

Recommendation 6b: The Suicide Prevention Resource Center should establish and facilitate a clinical and research advisory group to translate research into clinical practice guidance, providing an expert forum for advising the work of the Regional Centers of Excellence.  While there is a relative dearth of randomized control trial studies on suicide prevention effectiveness, there are many clinical researchers pursuing important clinical studies.  The Task Force recommends that SPRC create a Clinical and Research Advisory Panel made up of national suicide prevention clinical and research experts.  The panel would help translate the growing body of research into practice.  It would serve as an expert forum to guide the operations of the Regional Centers of Excellence.  It would also assist SPRC in its ongoing technical assistance and training functions, and help inform state efforts on updating state plans and advancing suicide prevention.

Recommendation 7:  Suicide prevention should be incorporated in national health care reform implementation.  State health and behavioral health agencies should incorporate the recommendations contained in this report in guidance to and expectations for health plans and specialty and mainstream health providers (e.g., hospitals, clinics, group practices, treatment facilities).  A critical principle of health care reform and quality health care is to deliver care in a more integrated fashion.  While this principle affects many layers of health care, integration of general and emergency health services with mental health and addiction care offer opportunities to embed effective suicide prevention care in emerging health care environments.

Collaborative care should be established as the standard of care for detection, treatment and management of behavioral health problems in primary care.  Emerging models of care such as Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMH), Health Homes (HH) and Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) should incorporate collaborative suicide prevention strategies in their design and implementation.  These models of care are patient‑centered and coordinated across all elements of the complex health care system (e.g., specialty care, hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes) and the patient’s community (family, and public and private community‑based services).  Care is facilitated by health information exchange and other means to ensure patients have access to the care they need.  Incorporating suicide as a never event should mark the design and implementation of new and changing models of health and behavioral health care.  The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and its federal partners should monitor the implementation of health care reform to promote quality suicide prevention services as new models of health care delivery evolve.