Some N.J. providers embrace suicide-prevention approach that emphasizes screening

 Talyah Basit attends the suicide-prevention conference at the War Memorial in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Talyah Basit attends the suicide-prevention conference at the War Memorial in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In New Jersey, hundreds of health providers turned out to a conference on suicide prevention Tuesday — a gathering organizers say would never have happened 20 years ago.

A few decades ago, the stigma around suicide was still so great that even some health providers would not talk about it openly.

But this year, 300 of them gathered in New Jersey to learn about a model called “zero suicide,” an evidence-based approach that has significantly reduced the suicide rates in other states.

The model encourages doctors and providers to do more screening, said Maria Kirchner, who co-chairs New Jersey’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services suicide prevention committee.

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“Even if a person comes in with a broken leg or pain, they still perform universal screening and ask people the important question, ‘Are you suicidal?'” she said.

The model also focuses on eliminating the long wait times that can keep people from getting the immediate care they need.

That’s something Rutgers University student Talyah Basit has experienced through people close to her.

Five friends have struggled with thoughts of suicide — and one was told she’d have to wait three weeks for an appointment with a counselor, Basit said.

“And for a person who is suicidal, that’s way too long,” she said.

And while it’s important to have more therapists, it’s also vital to train mental health staff to provide culturally competent care, said Basit, a Pakistani-American from a Muslim family.

“If they don’t understand the cultural background of the person they’re trying to help, that can be an impediment,” she said.

For example, Basit said, a close friend found a well-meaning therapist ineffective because she couldn’t offer advice that made sense for his cultural context.  Basit encouraged her friend to simply tell his Muslim parents that he drank — which she said felt impossible for him to do. Islam generally prohibits drinking.

Jerry Reed, an expert on zero suicide, said two providers in New Jersey have committed to the model — AtlantiCare and Rutgers.

“I think we just have to kind of challenge the status quo — and challenge our comfort zone — and realize that suicide care is no different than diabetes care or heart care or other types of health care,” he said.

Reed said the model isn’t expensive or difficult to implement, but it does require buy-in from leadership and a systems change.

In 2015, 789 people died by suicide in New Jersey. The state is hoping to lower that rate by 20 percent by 2025.

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