National Survey of Emergency Department Management of Self-Harm Highlights Successes, Room for Improvement

Only 15 percent of hospitals surveyed routinely provided all recommended safety planning elements

March 13, 2019

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Approximately half a million patients in the United States arrive in emergency departments (EDs) after deliberate self-harm annually. In the short term following the ED visit, these patients are at high risk for repeated self-harm and suicide.

In a study published today in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital describe the results of a national survey to evaluate how frequently evidence-based management practices are used in EDs when treating patients who present for self-harm.

“The emergency department plays a critical role in treating not only the physical injury but the behavioral health concerns that led to self-harm,” says Jeff Bridge, PhD, director of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s, and lead author on the study. “Improving their emergency care is a key focus of national strategies to reduce the suicide rate, but we don’t know all that much about ED management of self-harm.”

The survey was mailed to a random sample of 665 ED nursing directors among 2,228 hospitals with five or more self-harm visits in the prior year. Most of the EDs sampled were urban, non-teaching hospitals with high mental health staffing.

Overall, the EDs regularly provided five of 10 specified self-harm management practices. EDs most commonly assessed for current and past suicidal thoughts/behaviors and access to lethal means. In fact, EDs assessed the first two more than 90 percent of the time. However, providing elements of safety planning varied widely, with only two of six elements provided more than half the time.

Components of a good safety plan include an individualized plan to restrict access to lethal means, employing internal coping strategies and accessing available social supports and activities.

“Safety plans are essential to the wellbeing of patients who are at risk for experiencing a mental health crisis,” adds Dr. Bridge.

Among the hospitals surveyed, patients in the ED as a result of self-harm were often (79 percent) given a list of professionals or agencies to contact in a crisis, and just over half (52 percent) of patients received education about recognizing the warning signs of suicide. Only 15 percent routinely provided all the recommended safety planning elements.

“Emerging evidence suggests that safety planning in combination with structured telephone follow up can significantly reduce suicidal behaviors after ED discharge,” said Dr. Bridge. “This is a specific area where quality improvement efforts in the ED management of self-harm could have an important impact on improving patient outcomes.”

The study authors say that future research should evaluate specific aspects of ED interventions for deliberate self-harm and their likelihood to reduce the risk of repeated self-harm and suicide.

Study co-authors are affiliated with The Ohio State University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and City University of New York.

Responsible reporting on suicide and the inclusion of stories of hope and resilience can prevent more suicides. You can find more information on safe messaging about suicide here.  If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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Behavioral Health

About Nationwide Children's Hospital

Named to the Top 10 Honor Roll on U.S. News & World Report’s 2019-20 list of “Best Children’s Hospitals,” Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of America’s largest not-for-profit freestanding pediatric health care systems providing wellness, preventive, diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitative care for infants, children and adolescents, as well as adult patients with congenital disease. Nationwide Children’s has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.5 million patient visits annually. As home to the Department of Pediatrics of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Nationwide Children’s physicians train the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists. The Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the Top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded freestanding pediatric research facilities. More information is available at NationwideChildrens.org.