Physicians Take Notice: Suicide Rates are Increasing Dramatically

By Steve Adelman, MD

Earlier this month, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) presented alarming data comparing age-adjusted suicide rates between 1999 and 2010.

Historically, the two major causes of death of younger people have been motor vehicle accidents and suicide. As motor vehicle accident deaths have gone down, suicides have gone up: 2009 was the first year in which the number of people who put an end to their lives themselves was greater than the number who lost their lives in car accidents.

Overall, the suicide rate jumped by 28.4% among persons aged 35-64. The rate of increase was even greater for whites, American Indian/Alaska Natives, older women (60-64), and people living in the West. As usual, in most successful suicides the cause of death is firearms.

To put the numbers in perspective, let’s think about a busy, multispecialty ambulatory adult primary care practice that employs a group of 4 internists, 2 nurse practitioners and a physician assistant. In the course of a year, perhaps 12,000 unique patients are seen in the office. A practice of this sort in Massachusetts, New York or New Jersey is likely to see one patient die by suicide per year. In Midwestern practices of this size, a second patient suicide would be predicted.

Suicide, not murder, is the most prevalent form of firearm death in this country. What is the role of primary care physicians in addressing this worrisome, growing public health problem?

Provide an opening: Give patients in the office enough time and space to talk about the things that worry them and weigh on them. A question like, “Is there anything else going on that you’d like to share with me? “ may give permission for a suicidal person to open up. A comment like, “Sometimes the most important stuff is the hardest to talk about….I’m all ears,” followed by enough time for the patient to think and open up, can make a difference.

Know your patient’s psychiatric history: Many elements in a patient’s history elevate the risk of suicide: a history of previous suicide attempts, a known mood disorder, a history of a substance use disorder, recent losses, and family history of suicide. Take the time to know your patients, and get help from mental professionals, as appropriate.

Clarify access to firearms: As firearms are the commonest proximate cause of violent deaths, physicians should understand whether or not their patients have access to firearms. It is appropriate to be worrying about high-risk patients with access to firearms, and to address this risk factor with the help of the patient’s family, mental health professionals, and, in some cases, the police.

Let patients know that the channels of communication are always open: People who know that they can always call and reach a health care professional have a place to turn when all else fails. Make sure that your practice has accessible 24/7 coverage, and that those covering know what to do when somebody suicidal calls for help.

In my next  post, I plan to discuss an important related topic: physician suicide. We have always been a high risk group, and this is especially worrisome in view of the recent overall increase in suicide.

Dr. Adelman is director of Physician Health Services, Inc., a corporation of the Massachusetts Medical Society. For more information, visit Opinions expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Massachusetts Medical Society or Physician Health Services.


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