By Robert Gebbia and Mark Friedlander, M.D., M.B.A.
It’s estimated that 45,000 Americans will take their lives this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of whom will have a mental health disorder. Each year in September, for National Suicide Prevention Month, we are called upon to shed light on this leading, yet preventable, cause of death. Providers and healthcare companies should treat this month of recognition as a time to evaluate what they are doing to identify and care for patients at risk for suicide, as well as support patients’ mental health needs. By implementing critical education and prevention programs, and making vital resources accessible, we can make strides in reducing the number of suicides each year.
Examine Payment Models that Address Mental Health Needs
To address patients’ mental health needs, our current health system must shift to evaluate care from a holistic perspective. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), 92 percent of people believe services that address mental health are fundamental to overall health. However, more than half (56 percent) of U.S. adults say that physical health is treated as more important than mental health in our current system. Clearly, consumers feel that the state of mental health care is inadequate. To address these issues, more mental health and suicide prevention training must be available to physicians, and providers must implement comprehensive health strategies that address physical, mental and emotional wellness.
Fortunately, the healthcare industry has already made progress towards holistic treatment with value-based care practices. To ensure value of care and establish benchmarks, physicians must provide screenings and follow-up treatment for physical and mental health conditions. These services are especially important for patients at risk of developing comorbid conditions, such as opioid addiction or cancer, which frequently co-occur with depression and other mental health conditions. Consistent screenings will allow physicians to receive a more accurate picture of patient health. Based on this feedback, physicians can adjust and personalize treatment plans, ultimately leading to improved outcomes for patients. Other suicide risk-reducing interventions (e.g., safety planning, lethal means counseling and providing follow-up contact after discharge) should also be billable to ensure optimal training and utilization by healthcare providers.
Healthcare providers must support patients and guide them to available resources. Aetna and AFSP have united to provide several mental health resources to aid those who are struggling, and educate people on research, prevention and advocacy efforts. A few of these include Aetna’s MindCheck tool, which gives members a read on their emotional health and tips on how to improve it; AFSP’s Interactive Screening Program (ISP), which provides a safe and confidential screening for mental health conditions, and allows participants to contact a mental health counselor; and Talk to Save Lives™, a community-based presentation from AFSP that covers the general scope of suicide, research on prevention and information on how people can help. Patients can also be referred to the AFSP website, where they offer information and access to hotlines, crisis centers and support groups.
Train Peers to Know the Signs
Although suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., warning signs often go unnoticed. To combat this rising cause of death, the healthcare industry must deploy training programs that highlight the five ways to help prevent suicide and how to engage with patients who may be suffering. These trainings should be utilized by both the clinicians who treat patients as well as others who work in the healthcare industry. Already, initiatives such as the Mental Health First Aid program, a training program on recognizing and responding to a mental health problem or crisis, have impacted how other industries train professionals to recognize and address mental health issues. These programs can be applied in the healthcare industry to aid interactions with patients.
Take Action – Providers Play a Role
Addressing our health systems’ mental health practices is a formidable but worthy cause. Far too often, symptoms of mental illness and suicide risk go unrecognized and patients do not receive help. Providers must take responsibility for their role in recognizing the mental health needs of patients and guide them towards the resources they need to make progress in reducing suicides each year.
Chief Executive Officer, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Mr. Robert Gebbia serves as the CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the leading suicide prevention nonprofit in the US. Gebbia also serves on the National Lifeline Advisory Committee, the Executive Committee of the National Action Alliance and the Board of Directors of the National Health Council.
Mark Friedlander, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Aetna Behavioral Health
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
Mark Friedlander, MD joined Aetna in 2002 as Medical Director for Aetna Behavioral Health. He is currently responsible for external relationships, strategic direction, oversight of patient management processes and design and implementation of case and disease management programs.