Health care providers can play a critical role in identifying people at risk for suicide and connecting them to the care they need. A new video from The Pew Charitable Trusts looks at how universal screening for suicide risk helps ensure that more people get essential help.
In 2021, more than 48,000 Americans died by suicide, the 11th leading cause of death in the country that year. Research shows about half of those people saw a health care provider within a month of their death, highlighting a critical opportunity to identify and help people experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Today, most hospitals and health care systems screen patients for suicide risk when there’s a behavioral health concern. The practice of universal screening is more comprehensive: All patients receive suicide risk screenings regardless of why they’re seeking care. This approach helps medical professionals identify more patients experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors and connect them with evidence-based care. Screenings can be brief, even as short as two questions. As the video shows, some health systems that have implemented universal screening are identifying patients facing suicide risk who previously wouldn’t have been screened. And that’s a potentially lifesaving result.
“I was a big naysayer of it [at first],” said Dr. Laura Schrag, an emergency medicine physician at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis. “I just thought, ‘Oh, this is one more thing to slow us down, one more thing that our nurses are asked to do. This isn’t our job.’ [But] one of the things I’ve realized is every aspect of medicine has a role to play … to take care of the entire patient.” She added, “We all have to do our part.”
Universal screening hasn’t been adopted everywhere, but providers are already seeing its impact. At Hennepin Healthcare, about 80,000 patients receive suicide risk screenings each year. And in the first two years of universal screening, health care providers at Hennepin facilities identified more than 2,000 people experiencing suicide risk.
If a patient is identified as being at risk for suicide, providers then work with the patient to ensure they receive evidence-based care. Intense suicidal thoughts tend to be fleeting, said Joel Bershok, a licensed independent clinical social worker with CentraCare Health System in St. Cloud, Minnesota, so people experiencing such thoughts need tools to get them through the moment. CentraCare has adopted universal screening for its nine hospitals, where individuals experiencing suicide risk can work with staff to answer a questionnaire and develop a safety plan to use if thoughts of suicide return.
“We touch so many people at risk of suicide,” said Lisa Bershok, also a social worker with CentraCare, “but if we’re not asking directly, we’re never going to know.”
Though a wide range of factors can contribute to suicide risk, tools such as universal screening are an important part of prevention. Schrag of Hennepin Healthcare sees critical potential benefits: “Asking these questions, documenting them, [and] making sure the patient is then in a safe spot.” Taken together, she said, these steps “may really be the most easy and simple way that we can save a life.”
Kristen Mizzi Angelone leads Pew’s suicide risk reduction project.