LA CROSSE, Wis. - A local hospital is expanding how they screen for suicidal behavior.
La Crosse County started the year with as many as four potential suicides. Health officials agree that the first step in addressing suicide is asking the question: Are you OK?
Since early December, Gundersen Health System has been using a new tool to screen patients for suicide, and uses that questionnaire at every physical and hospital stay.
Medical professionals like executive V.P. at Gundersen Dr. Michael Dolan know first-hand how devastating suicide can be.
"Early on in my career I saw an elderly gentleman. I diagnosed him with something completely fixable. We had a plan in place. He left my office, his daughter asked him what the doctor said, and he said I'm going to die, and three days later he killed himself,” Dolan said. “I remember that day like it was yesterday."
So he wants as many people to be screened as possible, and now Gundersen patients are screened across the board, whether they’re in for an ordinary physical, or for a hospital stay – where they get screened both at admittance and upon release.
"It's pretty conclusive that if you ask the question, if you just screen, it gives you an opportunity to intervene,” Dolan said.
The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale starts with simple questions, and has more in depth questions if the patient expresses suicidal thoughts.
If a patient is determined to be high risk for suicide at Gundersen, they have a mandatory behavioral health consultation.
At Mayo Clinic Health System, employees use the Patient Depression Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to determine what level of care a patient needs.
"The screening tools such as this really do help to identify who are the patients that really do need a psychiatrist? Who are the ones who maybe just need some education on coping and other mechanisms?" Mayo R.N. Hedi Rekow said. “I think something like this helps to get the right treatment for that patient in a timely manner.”
But it's not just doctors who should be asking the tough questions. Health officials say it's on the rest of us, too.
"You need to ask the questions, ‘are you OK?’, and go beyond that to say, ‘are you thinking of harming yourself?’ And follow up with persuading them to live and referring them for help,” Jen Rombalski, La Crosse County Health Department director, said.
"It's hard, it's really hard,” Dolan said. “These are uncomfortable questions that we have been programmed with, really from birth, not wanting to ask, but we need to get over that discomfort and ask those questions, because that's how we're going to stop this epidemic of suicide."
Dolan said the screening has already worked as they hoped it would in a case where a man was determined to be high risk for suicide and then got the help he needed.
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