Penn researcher says brief intervention could help suicidal patients stay safer

    Patients who are suicidal or have attempted suicide often end up in the emergency room, and are released after a brief hospital stay. Many refuse follow-up care or can’t access it quickly.

    In the weeks and months after hospitalization, they are at increased risk for making another attempt to take their life.

    A University of Pennsylvania researcher has developed an intervention that uses the time spent in the hospital to prepare patients for future crises.

    Dr. Gregory Brown, a professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine, has developed a quick safety plan, to be filled out by patients with doctors and nurses. He says this intervention can give patients tools to be safer, and better prepared the next time they are in crisis.

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    “The suicide crisis comes in waves, there is an ebb and flow, and if you can get them to just delay acting on their impulses for even a short period of time, that will help reduce suicide risk,” explained Brown.

    In the safety plan, for example, patients could pinpoint warning signs that alert them or their loved ones that they are suicidal.

    “Patients are often aware of the warning signs, but they need to be more carefully defined,” said Brown. “They may say, ‘I know I am in crisis when I get depressed,’ but they don’t really know how to tell that they are depressed.”

    In the safety plan, patients also identify risks such as guns or pills in the home. Those items are then removed or secured by a loved one.

    Brown says this safety intervention is used in many veterans’ hospitals, but he believes all emergency departments should have such interventions in place.

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