A pastoral letter from California’s Catholic bishops on caring for those who suffer from mental illness noted that “American society is seeing rising rates of depression and anxiety,” with the impact being “an alarming increase in the rates of suicide, among both men and women of nearly every age group.” The letter concluded with an urgent call to respond.
With support from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and other combined efforts, health systems around the country are responding.
Catholic health systems in particular are called to care for the most vulnerable, to provide them hope and healing. Those who suffer in silence, loneliness and despair embody vulnerability in this day and age. As the bishops made clear in their letter, “Consider this stark contrast: A person with a medical illness, such as cancer, will usually receive an outpouring of sympathy and support from their parish and community; a person diagnosed with a mental illness—such as depression, crippling anxiety or bipolar disorder—frequently experiences isolation and inadequate support, often because of the unjust social stigma of mental illness.”
Many faith-based and secular health systems have stepped up their efforts to focus care delivery on discovering, referring, and treating for depression and suicidal ideation, often working as part of community efforts. For example, Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, Fla., screens for depression and suicide risk upon admission to the pediatric emergency department and then again upon inpatient admission.
If patients screen positively, they are referred for appropriate care to address directly their underlying symptoms. And Ascension Via Christi in Kansas is collaborating with others in the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition to promote and implement evidence-based approaches, local research and community change to reduce the impact of suicide, with the ultimate goal of zero suicides in the county.
Supporting these and similar efforts, in 2017 SAMHSA created the Zero Suicide initiative, offering grants of up to five years to implement comprehensive approaches to suicide prevention in health systems. As of last year, the agency had awarded more than $61 million in grants for suicide prevention programs to be distributed over several years.
Ascension is one year into its five-year Zero Suicide grant, which we are using to create the Ascension Zero Suicide Collaborative Network. The collaborative will serve patients in Indiana, Tennessee and Michigan, seeking to transform primary care, behavioral health, medical/psychiatry, OB-GYN, residency clinic and emergency department services. The collaborative network will serve individuals ages 25 and older in diverse urban and rural settings with special outreach to U.S. veterans, people with substance use disorders and individuals with social determinants of health barriers, among others.
So far, we have almost tripled our goal for screenings and exceeded our goal for referrals by over 700%. We have trained over 500 members of our mental health-related workforce, and we have provided services to those being referred 100% of the time, doubling our goal.
This is just one example of the type of focused approach that health systems across the country are taking to address the tremendous problems of mental health and suicide.
What do these efforts mean in real terms? Take the example of Alexis DeJean, a project coordinator at Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis. She provides specialized training to colleagues so they can make calls to patients whose mental health may benefit from follow-up. Those staffers appreciate the training, which they’ve used not only with patients but with family members and friends. Several patients also have shown enormous appreciation for the calls, telling Alexis how much the outreach has helped them.
Caregivers across the country like Alexis are beginning to pierce through the “silence, loneliness and despair” of depression to let patients know that they care and are there to help. In the sphere of suicide prevention, this type of genuine, caring outreach is needed to save lives.