By Sonja Hutchens
In early April, I learned that my brother had attempted suicide. I was assured that he was safe at the hospital and would be getting the treatment he needed. I knew that over time, things would be okay. And things are okay. He is back home and doing very well. My family has dealt with mental illness and the struggles that mental Illness causes for a long time. We have a strong community that includes mental health professionals, family members, and friends. I feel fortunate and wish that everyone had this kind of support. Throughout my career, I would like to promote and help contribute to sustainable support systems for my patients.
I have been learning how to handle mental health crises in my personal life for some time, but I am only beginning to learn how to care for patients in mental distress. Every pharmacist and student pharmacist should know what to do if, and when, they encounter a patient in crisis. Even if you have no prior exposure to mental health crises, as a pharmacist, you have the responsibility to identify and assist patients in need.
If you have ever worked in a community pharmacy, you may have encountered patients who made concerning or troubling statements and you may not have known how to
respond. I hope to give you a head start on learning about some resources that can provide you with the skills you will need to navigate difficult situations and identify and care for patients contemplating suicide.
Suicide affects everyone
While you may not think about it regularly, suicide affects every person in the United States in one way or another. Either they have personally struggled with suicide ideation or know someone who has thought about or died by suicide (although you might not know it). Even though many people are affected by suicide, it is not openly discussed.
Here, just try this: Say the word “suicide” out loud. How did that feel? How did you react when you heard it?
Most people find the experience of saying this word uncomfortable, even jarring. Do people hesitate to use the word suicide because of the fear that if it is spoken aloud, it is summoning suicide to enter their own lives? Or entering the lives of patients? However, the opposite has been found to be true. The American Association of Suicidology states that asking individuals if they are considering suicide does not increase suicides.
Gaining competence in suicide prevention is a journey. Fortunately, there are resources that can help students gain the skills and knowledge that will help them on their way.
Training and resources
I recently attended Mental Health First Aid Training hosted by the Iowa Pharmacy Association. It is an all-day training that instructs participants to assess an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, offer initial help and support, and connect someone to appropriate care. It was an insightful and thought-provoking training that taught me to recognize warning signs, and more importantly, gain the confidence to act.
Mental Health First Aid Training is a standardized, 8-hour evidence-based training provided throughout the country. There also are trainings focused specifically on handling suicide crisis. Livingworks provides a 2-day, 16-hour training called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and a 4-hour training called safeTALK. These interactive trainings will leave you feeling more confident in your ability to assist a patient that may be thinking about suicide. If you are not able to attend these longer trainings, the QPR Institute offers a 1- to 2-hour class called QPR: Question, Persuade, and Refer. QPR is available nationwide from trained facilitators. Even if you are not able to seek out additional trainings, it is important to know the resources that are available to patients experiencing a crisis. You should know how to uset he National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text line (text 741-741). Consider putting together a pamphlet listing the national and local resources so they can be readily available when you need them. Local agencies may already have handouts.
Pharmacists are in the unique position of being the most accessible health professional. Every day, you may meet a patient who could benefit from a kind word or encouragement. Occasionally, you may encounter someone who needs more. Just like how you would be quick to rush to the aid of someone having an anaphylactic reaction, I believe everyone can gain the skills that will allow you to care for someone in a mental health crisis.
We can make a lasting difference in the lives of the people we serve.