Few situations are more stressful than being at the emergency room with a friend or relative who has just attempted suicide. Even when the attempt has failed, there are a lot of unknowns and “What do we do now?” questions. If this is a first attempt, or the first attempt in which you have been involved, it helps if you can at least know what to expect from the emergency room portion of the situation.
After a suicide attempt, emergency room healthcare providers have several priorities. Their first priority, or course, is to save the life of the patient. Once the patient’s physical condition is stabilized, their second priority is to stabilize the patient emotionally. Finally, the ER staff has to determine where the patient should go next. Should they go to an inpatient facility? Can they go home? What follow up treatment should be provided?
Other than waiting, what can you do to help in this situation?
The most important contribution you can make is to give the ER staff any information you have that could help them understand what led to this attempt and how likely the patient is to make a second attempt. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, you should let the provider know if your friend or relative has:
- “Access to a gun, lethal doses of medications, or other means of suicide.
- Stopped taking prescribed medicines.
- Stopped seeing a mental health provider or physician.
- Written a suicide note or will.
- Given possessions away.
- Been in or is currently in an abusive relationship.
- An upcoming anniversary of a loss.
- Started abusing alcohol or drugs.
- Recovered well from a previous suicidal crisis following a certain type of intervention.”
The ER staff will need to know as much as possible about the patient’s medical and psychiatric history, history of suicide attempts, recent and current emotional state and support network. This isn’t a betrayal of your friend’s private information; it’s giving people who can help, the information they need to help preserve the patient’s life. It’s important to be as frank and open as possible when you talk to them.
In spite of the fact that you are giving a lot of information to the ER staff, don’t be offended if the provider doesn’t share information with you in return. Healthcare providers are required by law to keep health information private, including mental health information. Violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) can incur strict penalties, including jail time, for hospital staff.
The more calm and helpful you are, the more the ER staff can focus on the wellbeing of the patient. Later, when the crisis has passed, don’t underestimate the impact of your own trauma and distress. If you need help ask for it. Taking care of yourself will also help you give you the strength to be a supportive presence in the life of your loved one.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help if you need it. They support those affected by suicide as well as those dealing with personal suicidal ideation. You can talk to someone there or ask for help finding a support group for those affected by a suicide attempt.