Engaging Patients

When an organisation makes a commitment to Zero Suicide, every patient who is identified as being at risk for suicide is closely followed. He or she is engaged and re-engaged at every encounter no matter the reason for the visit. We call this plan for continuous engagement a Suicide Care Management Plan or a pathway to care.

Organisations that have reported the most success providing patients with a pathway to care use an electronic health record (EHR) to flag patients at risk of suicide.

In a Zero Suicide approach:

  • All individuals identified to be at risk of suicide are engaged in a Suicide Care Management Plan.
  • The patient’s status on a suicide care management plan is monitored and documented in an electronic health record (EHR).

To Implement Zero Suicide

Design Suicide Care Management Policies
Design policies and procedures for engaging a patient in a Suicide Care Management Plan, which should specify the following:
  • The screening tool and criteria to indicate that the patient should be engaged in a suicide care management plan
  • Provision of same-day access to a behavioural health professional for formulation of a judgment of risk using a standard risk formulation framework
  • Requirements and protocols for safety planning, crisis support planning, and lethal means reduction
  • The frequency of visits for a patient with a suicide care management plan and actions to be taken when the patient misses appointments or drops out of care
  • The process for communicating with a patient about diagnosis, treatment expectations, and what it means to have a suicide care management plan
  • Requirements for continued contact with and support for the patient, especially during transitions in care
  • The referral process to suicide-specific, evidence-based treatment
  • How documentation of progress and symptom reduction will take place
  • Criteria and protocols for closing out a patient’s Suicide Care Management Plan

For more information about designing safety planning, crisis support, and lethal means reduction interventions, see the Patient Engagement section below.

Implement Suicide Care Management Policies

Change systems and get staff buy-in so that policies will be followed by:

  • Monitor patients in a Suicide Care Management Plan.
  • In the absence of an EHR, ensuring all staff clearly document patient status in a Suicide Care Management Plan in the paper record.
  • Training all staff at least annually in Suicide Care Management Plan policies and protocols so they know what is expected of them and the philosophy behind these policies.
  • Establishing a schedule for regular team meetings and clinical case consultations to discuss patients at risk.
  • Setting a schedule for management to regularly review charts to determine that policies and protocols are being followed.

Experience has shown that using an EHR is a key factor in consistently engaging patients in a Suicide Care Management Plan.


Active Engagement for Safer Suicide Care

Engaging the Patient 

A fundamental premise of the Zero Suicide approach is that safer suicide care begins from the moment the patient calls the organisation for an appointment or is admitted for treatment. For example, suicide risk immediately becomes a primary focus of assessment in a behavioural health or primary care setting if a patient indicates that he or she is currently having suicidal thoughts, has had suicidal thoughts in the past or has made prior attempts.

Another fundamental premise is that all staff members have a crucial role in preventing suicide. At every encounter with a patient who is at risk of suicide, suicide risk should be assessed. This attention to suicidal patients by all staff members, clinical and non-clinical, requires a fundamental shift in what a health or behavioural health organisation sees as its role.

Although a great deal of the focus of Zero Suicide is keeping patients safe from harm, engaging patients is not solely about making sure that they come in for sessions. The goal is for patients to grow, gain skills, and recover.

Actively engaging a patient about suicide risk includes the following:

  • Takes into account the individual’s experiences and resources
  • Builds hope for recovery
  • Empowers the individual to resolve crises and long-term problems using the least invasive methods possible

The result of active engagement in suicide care is that the patient feels heard, cared for, and empowered to make safe decisions.

Care that focuses on suicidal thoughts and behaviour may be new and even overwhelming to a patient and family. The collaborative, non-judgmental, comprehensive approach that is part of Zero Suicide may be a very different experience for many patients with suicide risk, especially if prior treatment has failed them. Staff members will need to take care to let patients know what to expect and guide them in how to use treatment effectively.

The following sections cover the fundamentals of engaging patients in safer suicide care.

Safety Planning

All individuals identified as at risk of suicide in primary care practices and clinics, hospitals and emergency departments, behavioural health organisations, and crisis services should have a safety plan.¹

Collaborative safety planning is becoming standard practice in many behavioural health organisations and health systems. A safety plan is a prioritised written list of coping strategies and sources of support developed by a clinician in collaboration with patients who are at high risk for suicide.

A safety plan should:

  • Be brief, in the patient’s own words, and easy to read
  • Involve family members as full partners in the collaborative process, especially to establish their role in responding to patient crises
  • Include a plan to restrict access to lethal means, which is also balanced with respect to legal and ethical requirements under laws
  • Be updated whenever warranted
  • Be in the patient’s possession when she or he is released from care²

Safety Planning Intervention for Suicide Prevention is an online training that we recommend being required for all staff, clinical as well as relevant non-clinical staff. You’ll find a link to the training on this page to the right.

Reducing Access to Lethal Means

Every safety plan should address reduction to access to any lethal means that are available to the patient. Limiting access to medications and chemicals and removing or locking up firearms and other weapons are important actions to keep patients safe.

Reducing access to possible methods of suicide may be one of the most challenging tasks a clinician faces with a patient. The Counselling on Access to Means (CALM) online training is offered free of charge by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. We recommend that it be required of all clinical and in some cases non-clinical staff members.

Organisation policies should clearly state what clinicians should do regarding lethal means, including the protocol to follow in the event a patient brings a weapon or other lethal means to the clinical setting.

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. (2015). Safety planning guide. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center.
Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/SafetyPlanningGuide%20Quick%20Gu…

Stanley, B., & Brown, G. K. (2012). Safety planning intervention: A brief intervention to mitigate suicide risk. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 19(2), 256–264.
Retrieved from http://www.suicidesafetyplan.com/uploads/Safety_Planning_-_Cog___Beh_Pra…


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