The workshop offered attendees an update on understanding how to evaluate suicidal ideation and what to do when someone is in crisis, and also discussion of the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority populations.
People will usually go to a primary care physician or a pediatrician when looking for help, O’Brien explained. But many people, including some health care professionals, are still not comfortable having conversations around suicidal ideation.
“To further complicate matters, if a patient says that they’ve thought about harming themselves, there are some providers who don’t know exactly what to do in that moment.”
These issues are exacerbated for health care professionals who have difficulty accessing mental health education opportunities. Some don’t live close to academic medical centers, which often have educational opportunities for local providers. Others cannot take time out from a busy caseload to travel to a multiday professional development conference in another city.
“The exceptional value of the virtual workshop was its ability to simultaneously educate some 1,800 professionals who signed up from 68 countries around the globe, 83% of whom were health care providers,” said O’Brien. “An additional 2,500 people have viewed the workshop since it originally aired.”
Buoyed by the success, O’Brien said that plans are underway for a 2022 suicide assessment event, as well as another program focused on the global impact of trauma.
Ten Experts, Thousands of Lives Impacted
In his opening remarks at the 2021 workshop, Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and psychiatrist in chief of McLean, referred to suicide as “a pandemic that is insidiously affecting thousands of American families each year, with nearly 50,000 people dying from suicide in the U.S.”
Rauch added, “It’s critical that we, as clinicians, educators, and trusted members of our communities, arm ourselves with the skills that we can apply in our daily work, to better care for those who are most vulnerable and need our support.”
Compared to many other areas of the world, the U.S. has seen suicide rates increase in the past two decades, with the suicide rate rising from 35% to 45% from 2001 to 2018. Data shows a decline in suicide rates in 2019 and 2020, however—a drop that offers some hope that the trend may be changing. The full picture remains complicated, as rates of anxiety and depression have increased and deaths due to drug overdoses were up by 30% in 2020.
In her talk on the trends and science of suicide prevention, Christine Moutier, MD, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), made a point that was reflected in all of the day’s workshop presentations: suicide is complex.
“Multiple areas of suicide risk and protective factors interact with a person’s biology, psychology, and cognition within historical, social, and environmental factors,” Moutier said.
Sharing some hopeful news, Moutier cited a Harris poll done in conjunction with AFSP showing that 96% of American adults now view their mental health as just as important as their physical health. She noted the positive impact of celebrities, such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, coming forward about their mental health challenges.
Another step in the right direction? Moutier said that the national discourse on suicide prevention is based more on science than it has been in the past.
“What we’re seeing, especially during COVID—but it certainly had begun long before COVID—was that there has been a momentum and a change in the political will and a readiness to engage in a deeper understanding and implementation of policies and practice at the state and federal level that have to do with communities as well as clinical enterprise, that really amount to suicide prevention. And I would say this is just getting started.”
Workshop presenters highlighted trends and specific risks for special populations. Ross J. Baldessarini, MD, director of the International Consortium for Bipolar & Psychotic Disorders Research at McLean, emphasized that release from the hospital is a high-risk time for patients and stressed the importance of prioritizing the link between inpatient and outpatient care.
In reviewing suicide and special populations, Tami D. Benton, MD, psychiatrist in chief at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that the rates of suicide and suicide attempts among minoritized youth are much higher than previously recognized. Benton outlined how traumatic experiences—including the trauma of racism—play a role, and emphasized the importance of culturally appropriate care.