Depression in men

How Telephone Triage Nurses Assist Suicide Callers

Did you know that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds and 2nd for 24 to 35-year-olds? According to the CDC, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide every day and that number continues to rise. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental illnesses often prevents people from getting help. For each single person who dies from suicide every year, another 278 people think about it. Suicide is becoming very prevalent, but there are ways telephone triage nurses can help to prevent someone from taking their own life. For someone who is revealing the warning signs of suicide, talking with them about their thoughts and feelings can save that person’s life.

What Can Telephone Triage Nurses Do to Help?

Telephone triage nurses play a critical role in suicide prevention. They may serve as the first point of contact for callers in need of immediate assistance. The more knowledgeable triage nurses are about treating patients with mental illnesses, the better they are prepared to intervene.

Warning Signs

When you’re on the phone with someone, take note of some of the most common warning signs of suicide that may come out on the call:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself;
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself;
  • Feeling hopeless or having no purpose;
  • Feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain;
  • Talking about being a burden to others;
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs;
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless;
  • Saying they sleep too little or too much;
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated;
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

In moments of crisis, connecting with a trained triage nurse can de-escalate the suicidal crisis and provide immediate help. It is never easy to talk about suicide, but it is crucial for triage nurses to be comfortable with this in the same way they might talk about chest pain. How they handle each call can be life-changing for the caller. For hospitals and practices using an independent triage nurse service, it is important to ask if the service has a process for dealing with suicide callers.

Tips for Triage Nurses: Finding a Connection With the Patient

To help prevent callers from harming themselves, telephone triage nurses need to quickly find a connection with the patient in order to calm them down. It is essential for the triage nurse to be sympathetic, non-judgmental, and accepting. No matter how negative the call might become, the fact that it exists is a positive sign. It is a cry for help that you can answer!

Even though remote triage nurses typically can’t see their patient, they must develop that all-important trust quickly and by means other than visualization for the caller to open up and be honest. Not all patients can accurately describe their condition, history, medical conditions, or other pertinent information; it is left to the telephone triage nurse to decipher this uncertainty.

Sometimes the patient needs emergency treatment, while other times they are reaching out for someone to talk with and work through difficult situations. Some of these hard life situations can be substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and loneliness. Nurses need to be prepared to calmly talk through any number of tough issues.

Example of an Actual Suicide Call

One of our TriageLogic telephone triage nurses took a frantic call from a patient who said he was going to end his life. The patient, a retired firefighter, was in remission from cancer. He told the triage nurse the doctors found metastasis and he was informed that he had only three months to live. Our nurse used the specific training she was given when faced with such a call and was able to calm this patient down. In the course of the conversation, the nurse found out where the patient was calling from and the manager on duty alerted the local police department for a safety check. Thanks to her support, the police found the man sitting in his car and helped transport him to a nearby hospital where he could receive immediate care.


Triage nurses always have the callers’ safety in mind. They combine both clinical judgment and emotional connections to assess the patient’s situation and to identify possible mental health issues. Nurses need to know the local emergency assistance numbers just in case they need to reach out for more assistance.

Just talking about their problems for a length of time can help a great deal for some suicidal callers. Talking can give them relief from loneliness, an awareness that another person cares, and a sense of being understood. Also, as they talk, something interesting happens – they get tired and their body chemistry changes. This can take the edge off their agitated state and help them get through a bad night. Suicide calls can be difficult, but with proper training, protocols, and disposition, telephone triage nurses save lives, one call at a time.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please don’t wait to call for help. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

For more information about the value triage nurses provide to patients suffering from mental health issues or how we can help you with an effective triage nurse program for your organization, contact TriageLogic.