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Just a few phone calls could prevent suicide attempts

PTI | Washington |

A few phone calls to people who have suicidal tendencies could significantly reduce future suicide attempts and save many lives, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Brown University in the US found that phone calls to suicidal patients following discharge from Emergency Departments led to a 30 per cent reduction in future suicide attempts.

The year-long trial, which involved 1,376 patients across US, provided suicidal patients with interventions that included specialised screening, safety planning guidance and follow-up telephone calls.

“People who are suicidal are often disconnected and socially isolated,” said Michael Allen, professor at the CU Anschutz.

“So any positive contact with the world can make them feel better,” said Allen.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Over one million people attempt to take their own life every year.

Allen said simply handing a suicidal patient a psychiatric referral when discharged is not enough.

“We call them up to seven times to check on them after discharge,” said Allen.

“If they aren't there we leave a message and call again. For many, this telephone call is all they get,” he said.

“We don't need more brick and mortar buildings, we can reduce suicide risk by simply calling people on the phone,” Allen said.

“Telephone follow-up programs offer a great way to help bridge an ED visit to outpatient mental health care and hopefully save lives,” said Emmy Betz, an associate professor at CU Anschutz.

The trial took place in three phases to create three comparison groups. In the first phase, 497 patients received each ED's usual treatment as a control group.

In phase two universal screening was implemented and 377 patients received additional attention in the ED. In the third phase, 502 patients received the experimental intervention.

Those patients received the same Phase 2 care including additional suicide screening from ED physicians, suicide prevention information from nurses and a personal safety plan they could fill out to prepare for times when they might begin harbouring suicidal thoughts again.

Over the next year, they also received periodic phone calls from trained providers, who would discuss suicide risk factors, personal values and goals, safety and future planning, treatment engagement, and problem solving.

The number of suicide attempts and the proportion of people attempting suicide declined significantly in the intervention group compared to treatment as usual.

The middle group, which received only additional screening, did not show a significant drop compared to the treatment as usual group.

“This is a remarkably low cost, low tech intervention that has achieved impressive results,” Allen said.