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Aiming for zero suicide

One of the important messages that those who work in suicide prevention want people to know and understand is that suicide is preventable.

Yet, surprisingly, it wasn’t that long ago when some health care professionals and others felt the opposite was true.

“This whole notion of preventing suicide is quite radical,” Dr. Justin Coffey, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Geisinger Health System, told Time magazine in a 2019 article called, Suicide Is Preventable. Hospitals and Doctors Are Finally Catching Up. “For many of us, it’s antithetical to what we were taught in our clinical training. Suicide is traditionally understood as this tragic yet inevitable outcome of serious mental illness.”

Thankfully, those notions are changing fast and a new concept of achieving zero suicide is gaining ground.

One of the early shifts in thinking came with the success of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit which, in two years, reduced suicide rates among its patients by more than 75% after it “remade itself around the goal of completely eliminating suicide among its patients, using science-backed techniques like giving them quicker access to care and keeping in closer contact with them,” according to the Time article.

The complete elimination goal came to be known as zero suicide - a term that addresses the development of a more holistic model of suicide preventative care which Time called “a collection of best practices for health care systems to use to reduce suicides among people under their care.”

It starts with the knowledge that most people who die by suicide (83%) have visited a health care setting at least once in the year before their death.

That means that health care organizations have an opportunity to provide better suicide prevention care if they can adequately identify those patients who are at risk for suicide.

Zero suicide models attempt to do this by shifting suicide prevention care from a fragmented approach to a holistic, system-wide plan that shares responsibility for it throughout the organization.

Locally, human service and mental health agencies in Bristol County had an opportunity to learn more about the model through a recent Bristol County Zero Suicide Learning Collaborative Zoom training put on by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.

The training included an examination of the seven elements of zero suicide which include using adequate screening tools to identify people with suicide risk; using suicide care management plans and evidence-based treatments with those at risk; and providing follow-up support and connections as they transition out of the health care setting.

The model also calls for better education, consistently taught to all health and mental health professionals and recognizes that the heroic efforts of those who are devoted to suicide prevention are not, on their own, enough to create change.

While reaching zero suicides may not, ultimately, be achievable, the goal is important as an aspirational challenge and a way forward, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

“It is critically important to design for zero even when it may not be theoretically possible. When you design for zero, you surface different ideas and approaches that if you’re only designing for 90 percent may not materialize. It is about purposefully aiming for a higher level of performance,” Thomas Priselac, CEO of Cedars Sinai Medical Center, is quoted as saying in a SPRC flyer on zero suicide.

To learn more about zero suicide, visit

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