A Life Worth Living: Zero Suicide Initiative Focuses on Helping At-Risk Patients

Suicide prevention is a topic that’s very close to Patricia Hayward-Paige’s heart. The Natchaug pharmacy technician lost a close friend to suicide nearly 20 years ago.

“She made an attempt and was unsuccessful. I was able to get her to a hospital and get her some help. She moved back to California, tried again and succeeded because no one there knew she was having a problem,” said Hayward-Paige.

Hayward-Paige’s experience has made her determined to help those who might be thinking about suicide. She and dozens of other clinical and non-clinical staff from across the Behavioral Health Network are helping to implement Zero Suicide – a system-wide, evidenced-based approach to establish more focused assessment and timely follow-up care for patients who are at risk of suicide.

Patricia Hayward-Paige (left), pharmacy technician at Natchaug and Deborah Weidner, MD, MBA, (right) East Region Behavioral Health Network Medical Director and BHN Vice President of Patient Safety and Quality.

In 2015, the Institute of Living was one of the first 20 organizations worldwide to be accepted into and trained by The Zero Suicide Academy, a two-day training for senior leaders of health and behavioral health organizations seeking to reduce suicide inside and outside their care settings. Since then, Natchaug, Rushford, Backus Hospital and the Hospital of Central Connecticut have all joined the IOL in implementing Zero Suicide as individual entities and as a system.

Under the Zero Suicide initiative, patients are assessed using the highly regarded Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS). C-SSRS uses a series of simple plain language questions asking the patient, for example, whether and when they have thought about suicide; what actions they have taken to prepare for suicide; and whether and when their attempted suicide was either interrupted by another person or stopped of their own volition.

Zero Suicide also focuses on training clinical and non-clinical staff, evidenced-based treatments focusing explicitly on suicide risk, establishing policies to ensure safe handoffs between caregivers, and effective engagement of patients at risk including a follow-up phone call within 24 hours after discharge.

“It’s a high-risk period. Just reaching out and making that call dramatically reduces the risk of suicide,” said Deborah Weidner, MD, MBA, East Region Behavioral Health Network Medical Director and BHN Vice President of Patient Safety and Quality.

At Rushford, Medical Director J. Craig Allen, MD, said the organization’s highest risk patients are those discharged from their detox program. He said these are the patients who get next day follow-up phone calls.

Gale Sullivan, East Region Nurse Manager for Behavioral Health (left) offers education and awareness information at a suicide prevention table at Backus Hospital.

“The population that suffers from substance abuse disorders is at an extremely high risk of suicide because of the nature of the substances, which can increase the rates of depression, decrease inhibitions and increase impulsivity. And the one variable that’s most highly correlated with suicide is alcohol,” Allen added.

Dr. Weidner said staff engagement in the Zero Suicide initiative is a key to its success and that many staff members, like Hayward-Paige, have answered the call.

“For me, if I can help one person by volunteering to be part of this group then it’s worth it,” said Hayward-Paige.