Pharmacists Can Play a Role in Helping to Prevent Suicides
Suicide rates have risen in nearly every state since 1999.
Building a rapport with and supporting patients is practically in the job description of a pharmacist.
It is that ability to build a rapport with people that puts pharmacists in a key position to intervene with people who may be contemplating suicide, according to a keynote speaker at the American Pharmacists Association Annual Meeting and Exposition in Seattle.1
Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol Officer who is credited with saving the lives of dozens people who were contemplated suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay, explained that as the most accessible health care providers, pharmacists can play a key role in preventing suicides as well.
Suicide rates have risen most states since 1999, and nearly 45,000 Americans aged 10 years or older committed suicide in 2016, according to data from the CDC.2 That number rose slightly in 2017, to more than 47,000 people.
Briggs, who founded Pivotal Points, which is designed to raise awareness about mental health issues, noted that pharmacists are in a good position to recognize some key warning signs in people who are contemplating suicide such as: either ceasing or stockpiling medications, abusing drugs or alcohol, and having trouble sleeping, and to watch for other signs like isolationism, changing appearance, and giving away belongings.
Briggs urged pharmacists to listen to people as they discuss their medications, and if they are using phrases like “It’s no use, I’ve tried everything,” or “If I wasn’t around, no one would miss me,” or, “If I killed myself, then people would be sorry,” then the pharmacists needs to initiate what he called the “courageous conversation.” Phrases like these demand immediate attention, he said, and an engaged 1-on-1 consultation, where the pharmacist actively listens by tuning out all distractions around them. He encouraged pharmacists to offer validations, support, and follow up with professional counselors when warranted. He also urged pharmacists to follow up with these patients as well.
Briggs warned the pharmacists in attendance at the meeting to avoid “negotiation techniques,” with a person who is contemplating suicide.
“Ego does not work in negotiations, and comparing situations does not work…it’s not about what you went through, it’s about them,” he said, offering this pearl: “Employ the 80-20 rule; that is, let them speak 80% of the time and us 20%.” He also explained that at times, when dealing with someone who is contemplating harming themselves, just listening can help. “On occasion silence can be golden.”
It is important to arm patients who are considering self-harm with coping skills, such as the importance of sleep, eating healthily, and understanding triggers, and the importance of talking to trained professionals, such as those available at the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255, when necessary.
Finally, Briggs explained that it’s important to be aware of the signs of depression in yourself, acknowledging just how stressful being a pharmacist is.
“Did you know, that in the nonpharmacist world, you are supposed to be perfect,” he asked the audience. “Every medicine is supposed to have the right number of pills, and the right dose.” But what if you make a mistake, Briggs queried.
“Be aware and self assess. Have self compassion,” he said, adding that it is important to seek professional assistance if you feel you need it.
1. Briggs K. Keynote Presentation: Know the Signs, Save a Life: Pharmacists Role in Suicide Prevention. Presented at: APHA2019. Seattle, Washington; March 24, 2019.
2. Suicide rates rising across the US. CDC website. cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html. Published June 7, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2018.