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Toby's Take: We Can Talk About Suicide

Person holding sign saying, "It's time to talk about it"

March 20, 2023

This week’s blog is heavy, and so be it. It’s about suicide, and we can talk about this.

Please let me run through the usual caveats. We all know someone who has taken their own life or know a family who has been affected by it. I say this from experience. We can’t let ourselves get crushed with guilt because someone chose a permanent solution to what appears to the world as a temporary problem. We aren’t the reason it happened.

I don’t have any answers, any insight, maybe no words of encouragement. When a close friend of mine died of suicide years ago, it was another friend, who had nearly gone down that road, who explained things I never understood about suicidal thoughts and behavior. I still don’t get it.

Meeting the needs of a national epidemic

The purpose of this blog post is to highlight, once again, that The University of Kansas Health System has thought this through and developed a program to meet this national epidemic head on.

We’ve formed a suicide prevention team in collaboration with our psychiatry and behavioral health team and partnered closely with the Zero Suicide Institute to follow its 7-step approach:

  1. Lead: Create a culture committed to reducing suicide among people under care.
  2. Train: Develop a confident, competent and caring workforce.
  3. Identify: Assess suicide risk among people receiving care.
  4. Engage: Ensure every person has a suicide care management plan.
  5. Treat: Use effective, evidence-based treatments that directly target suicidality.
  6. Transition: Provide continuous contact and support, especially after acute care.
  7. Improve: Make changes to improve outcomes and better care for those at risk.

Thankfully, we are way down the line on these steps. And we’re closer to the institute’s nationwide goal to spread the word “that suicide deaths for individuals under the care of health and behavioral health systems are preventable.”

“Preventable” doesn’t mean we have to understand the “why” all the time, just that suicide deaths (and suicide attempts) are a public health issue.

“The framework is based on the realization that individuals who are suicidal often fall through the cracks in a sometimes fragmented healthcare system,” the Zero Suicide Institute says. “A systematic approach to quality improvement in these systems is both available and necessary to save lives.”

Among the learnings:

  • Men die by suicide at a rate of 4 times that of women.
  • Children entertain thoughts about suicide at an alarming rate.
  • The suicide rate is significantly higher in rural areas, particularly among adult men and children.

Suicide deaths for individuals under the care of health and behavioral health systems are preventable.

Zero Suicide Institute

Making inroads

Work is paying off and gaining some traction.

Last year, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment awarded The University of Kansas Health System a $50,000 grant to implement this program. We also received a grant from the Gould Charitable Foundation to help support symposia, school events and training for thousands of our staff.

We’re also putting suicide prevention kits in the hands of caregivers. The kits include medication lock boxes, safety planning tools and gun locks. They’re being distributed at community events and to hospital patients who may be at risk for suicide.

The classic thought always pops up.

“What can I actually do?” Think CPR, only change 1 letter. Part of our training at the health system involves QPR or Question, Persuade, Refer. For me, that means take the time to ask and don’t feel like you must solve the problem yourself. We have experts.

The more we all know, the better we’ll be able to address it, perhaps in time to stop someone. Suicides aren’t our fault. But they’re also something we can’t ignore.

Please note – the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is simply 9-8-8.

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