5 Ways Pharmacists Can Prevent Suicide

About 40,000 individuals commit suicide each year in the United States, but pharmacists have an important role to play in preventing these tragic deaths.

About 40,000 individuals commit suicide each year in the United States, but pharmacists have an important role to play in preventing these tragic deaths.

Pharmacists Preventing Suicide founder and president C. Patrick Tharp, PhD, previously told Pharmacy Times that pharmacists are ideally situated to assist those in need because of their frequent interactions with patients and access to medical records.

However, pharmacists are often unprepared to properly respond to signs of suicide risk, as very few pharmacy schools incorporate suicide prevention courses in their curriculums.

“I encourage all pharmacists to learn about suicide prevention and to implement it on a daily basis,” Dr. Tharp said. “With proper education and preparation, pharmacists can prevent suicide and save lives.”

In recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day and National Suicide Prevention Week, here are 5 ways pharmacists can help patients who are contemplating suicide.

1.) Identify at-risk patients

Because pharmacists regularly dispense mental health medications such as antidepressants, they are in a unique position to identify patients who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP, previously wrote that adolescents are among those at particularly high risk, with more than 9% experiencing at least 1 major depressive episode annually, and 6.3% reporting severe impairment as a result of their depression.

A recent study published in Translational Psychiatry suggested that the suicide rate among youths with major depressive disorder (MDD) has recently increased because clinicians are hesitant to prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which cause a temporary decrease in serotonin before taking effect.

“All clinicians need to use sound clinical judgment when working with depressed adolescents, and always err on the side of safety,” Wick wrote.

Certain weight-loss drugs such as naltrexone/bupropion carry a black box warning for suicide ideation, so patients taking these medications should be monitored, as well.

2.) Monitor medication use and mental health

Dr. Tharp advised pharmacists to pay close attention to at-risk patients, especially those who regularly take mental health prescriptions. If pharmacists observe any changes in how a medication is taken or prescribed, then they should learn the reasons behind them.

Pharmacists who have any reason to be concerned about a patient’s mental health should speak to the patient directly in a one-on-one consultation. If the patient expresses any feelings of hopelessness or make any other concerning comments, then the pharmacist should ask if the patient has ever inflicted self-harm or considered doing so.

Patients who have a trusting relationship with their pharmacists will openly discuss their mood and behavior, often disclosing any concerning thoughts or issues that they have experienced, Dr. Tharp explained.

3.) Collaborate with the health care team

Patients who have divulged thoughts of self-harm or suicide should be strongly encouraged to immediately discuss these thoughts with their primary care or mental health provider, Dr. Tharp said.

Pharmacists should then personally contact the patient’s other health care providers to discuss their concerns, regularly following up with them as they would for any other critically ill patient to ensure that the patient gets necessary treatment.

4.) Refer to suicide prevention resources

There are a number of tools and resources available for both patients experiencing suicidal thoughts and those concerned that a patient, friend, or loved one may be suicidal.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently launched its Suicide Safe mobile app specifically for health care providers such as pharmacists. The app provides users with suicide information and resources, allowing them to evaluate suicide risk, review case studies, and identify treatment options.

Over the past several months, Facebook has made improvements to its suicide prevention program, allowing users to report threats of self-harm or suicide before forwarding the flagged content to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL). As part of the updated features, Facebook users who post concerning content will be sent a notification encouraging them to reach out to a hotline or friend and providing them with additional advice and resources.

Additionally, a social media app called Yik Yak has proven to be a surprising tool for suicide prevention, with some users expressing suicidal thoughts through the app and receiving advise and words of encouragement from others in their communities.

Finally, the NSPL offers a 24-hour suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255, which will connect patients to a trained counselor at a local crisis center.

5.) Be encouraging and empathetic

Empathy and compassion are essential when treating patients who are contemplating suicide.

Pharmacists should listen carefully and attentively if and when patients open up about any suicidal thoughts, assuring them that their thoughts will pass and their situation will improve.

Dr. Tharp acknowledged that helping a suicidal patient can be an emotionally difficult experience for many health care providers, but he encouraged pharmacists to remain motivated by their drive to improve outcomes for their patients.

“It’s distracting if you try to think of the big numbers, but if you think about how you can help someone you know or love, then that will keep you moving every day,” Dr. Tharp stated. “If we save one, that will be enough.”