Using Telephone Triage to Prevent Suicide

Using Telephone Triage Services to Prevent Suicide

Telephone triage nurses play a critical role in suicide prevention. They 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.

According to the CDC, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide every day and the stigma associated with mental illnesses often prevents people from getting help.

For every one person who dies from suicide every year, another 278 people think seriously about it and don’t kill themselves. If you recognize the warning signs of suicide, talking with someone about their thoughts and feelings can save that person’s life.

Here are the most common warning signs of suicide: 

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself;
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself;
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose;
  • Talking about 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;
  • Sleeping too little or too much;
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated;
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

So, what can triage nurses do to help?

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 talking about suicide in the same way they talk about chest pain. How they handle each call can be life-changing for the caller.

Triage nurses need to find a connection with the patient, find the patients local emergency assistance numbers and be ready to involve all resources available to help prevent this patient from harming him/herself.

It is essential for the triage nurse to be sympathetic, non-judgmental, and accepting. The caller has done the right thing by getting in touch with another person. No matter how negative the call seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign, a cry for help.

Triage nurses always have the callers’ safety in mind. They combine both clinical judgment and emotional connections to assess the patient’s situation to identify possible mental health issues.

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 with the nurse. Not all patients can accurately describe their condition, history, medical conditions, or other pertinent information and 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 thru difficult situations like substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and loneliness.

Recently, one of our TriageLogic telephone triage nurses took a call from a patient who said he was going to end his life. The patient was a retired firefighter and was in remission from cancer. He just found out they found metastasis and that he had only three months to live. Our nurse kept the patient calm on the phone, enough to speak with her and answer questions. She was able to find out where the patient was calling from and alert 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.

Just talking about their problems for a length of time gives some suicidal callers relief from loneliness and pent up feelings, an awareness that another person cares, and a sense of being understood. Also, as they talk, they get tired and their body chemistry changes. These things 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, contact TriageLogic.


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