The Stepped Care Model in Clinical Suicide Prevention

According to the CDC, 12.2 million Americans seriously thought about suicide in 2020. 1.2 million actually made suicide attempts. With nearly 46,000 deaths per year, suicide remains a leading cause of death in the United States with rates of suicide steadily increasing over the past decade. Yet despite this health care emergency, mental health systems of care are largely underprepared to work effectively with suicidal individuals.

In response to these concerns, a recent policy initiative called “Zero Suicide” has advocated a systems-level response to the suicidal risk within health care and this policy initiative. And it’s working.

A “stepped care” approach has been developed and adapted to work within the Zero Suicide curriculum as a model for systems-level care that is suicide-specific, evidencebased, least-restrictive, and cost-effective. The Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) is an example of one suicide-specific evidence-based clinical intervention that can be adapted and used across the full range of stepped care service settings.

This article describes several applications and uses of CAMS at all service levels and highlights CAMS-related innovations in the stepped care model. Psychological services are uniquely poised to make a major difference in clinical suicide prevention through a systems-level approach using evidence-based care such as CAMS. Here’s how stepped care can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of suicide care.

What is a Stepped Care Approach?

Stepped Care is a system of delivering and monitoring treatment so that the most effective and efficient treatment is delivered to patients first. Patients only “step up” to intensive/specialist services when it’s clinically required.

For example, a stepped care model for suicide care usually starts with suicide or crisis hotline support and follow-ups, like the 988 Suicide Helpline. This is followed by more involved and thus more costly and less easily scalable interventions like: additional follow-ups, emergency care, hospitalization, and finally specialist inpatient psychiatric care or hospitalization.

stepped care model

The goal of stepped care is to use evidence-based assessments, treatment plans, and patient tracking to allow the right people to deliver the right treatment in the right place at the right time to meet each patient’s needs.

Applications and Use of CAMS Across the Stepped Care Model

Suicide prevention and treatment is an immensely complicated and ever evolving field. However, thanks to evidence-based assessment and treatment frameworks, like The Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) and tools like the Suicide Status Form (SSF) which is becoming a part of electronic health records across the country, clinicians can be more equipped to identify, treat, and ultimately prevent suicide.

CAMS has more than 30 years of evidence, five published randomized control trials, and two meta analyses one of which shows that CAMS is a “Well Supported” treatment by CDC criteria and is even proven to “reduce hopelessness and increase hope” in as few as six sessions. In fact CAMS is one of four evidence-based treatments that are referenced by the Joint Commission, Surgeon General, Zero Suicide, and the CDC.

Click here to learn more about how we train physicians to use CAMS to treat and prevent suicide.

Crisis Hotline Support

Staffed by well-trained and compassionate professionals, suicide crisis lines are incredibly important tools in suicide care and prevention. They have the unique ability to provide vital crisis support to a range of suicidal individuals from all walks of life. But more importantly, crisis lines can effectively help suicidal individuals who may not be able to afford or even need costly clinical interventions.

CAMS can be a useful resource for call centers, since crisic center work typically focuses on assessing the immediate risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts through collaborative dialogue. The Suicide Status Form (SSF) is also a well-suited therapeutic assessment tool to efficiently stratify the level of risk during a crisis call, thanks to its easy to learn, structured, yet non-directive framework.

The SSF can also be used to track the ongoing risk of repeat callers, providing continuity of care when multiple crisis workers speak with the same caller over a period of time across shifts. Recent use of crisis text and chat lines present additional opportunities for using the SSF as a framework for collaborative suicide-specific engagement.

Brief Intervention

Emergency departments are often responsible for identifying, performing risk assessments, and referring suicidal individuals to specialist care, often in a high-volume, high stress environment. That’s a lot to ask from ED practitioners. That’s why we developed CAMS Brief Intervention (CAMS-BI) to help meet this demand.

CAMS-BI is a single first session of CAMS using the SSF to learn about the patient’s suicide risk and the drivers of their suicidality, which leads to the development of a CAMS Stabilization Plan. CAMS-BI can be linked to non-demand caring follow-up contact in any way that’s agreeable to the patient including phone calls, text messages, e-mail, letters, etc. Emergency departments can also give out a Coping Care Package that includes various resources for patients to use after release.
Outpatient Settings

It’s essential for clinicians to attend to, assess, and treat suicidal risk in any mental health service setting. But the Suicide Status Form was originally developed for outpatient care, which means that CAMS is particularly well-suited for general outpatient mental health care services.

CAMS can help mitigate concerns regarding suicidal patients “falling through the cracks” by providing valuable structure and tracking support for both patients and clinicians. CAMS has even been adapted for use in several outpatient settings, including university counseling centers, community mental health centers, employee assistance programs, private practices, military, and Veterans Affairs behavioral health settings, and even successfully adapted to accommodate cultural considerations for use in countries around the world (Lithuania, China, Western Europe, and Australia).

Here is how CAMS is improving stepped suicide care in various clinical settings.

University Counseling Centers

CAMS has been successfully used in university counseling centers for years, and has proven to be especially adaptable to the unique culture of college life. One of the biggest strengths of CAMS on college campuses is how it integrates available resources in the university setting into the framework.

Empowering resident advisors, student-run organization, campus ministry, and health care services with the resources they need to help intervene with certain suicidal drivers and participate in the therapeutic process increases campus-wide awareness of suicidal risks while making the assessment and treatment stages of the process more efficient and effective for everyone involved.

Community Mental Health Centers

Clinicians working in Community Mental Health Centers often face unique challenges not limited to large case-loads, a chronic lack of resources, and an array of complex cases. CAMS can offer solutions to many of these challenges.

In a large-scale 5-year roll out of CAMS across the state of Oklahoma, CAMS was effectively adapted for CMHC patients with psychotic disorders and developmental delays. CAMS also increased hope and reduced suicidal ideation and overall symptom distress for outpatient CMHC patients, 40% of whom were homeless.

Independent Practice

Many clinicians in independent practice may feel particularly vulnerable and isolated when working with suicidal patients as they may not have access to various resources or a team of colleagues to help provide services and professional support. CAMS can provide clinicians with a clear procedural outline for assessing, treating, and tracking a suicidal patients’ progress, with tools like the SSF to increase their confidence and effectiveness at identifying and treating suicidal thoughts and ideations.

Military

Suicide remains a significant problem in the U.S. military, with many military Behavioral Health Clinics lacking a system for tracking ongoing suicidal ideation. As a consequence of this care gap many service members experience psychiatric hospitalization, which is not only inefficient, but often ineffective as suicide-specific treatment is typically limited.

Given the scope and scale of the problem, CAMS’ evidence-based, adaptable framework for assessing, tracking, and treating suicidal risk can provide an effective and scalable solution within military treatment facilities.It also addresses one of the biggest challenges for suicide care in the military — service members may not stay in one location long enough to complete a lengthy treatment protocol.

To help tackle this, CAMS aims to efficiently resolve suicidality in as few as six to eight sessions, and there’s a growing interest in the use of CAMS for military populations through telehealth.

Like standard CAMS, telehealth allows clinicians and behavioral health specialists to work together by jointly following the SSF as their clinical road map. Given the large number of service members who may not be able to access a treatment facility due to deployment, residing in remote areas, or physical disabilities, telehealth may provide a viable alternative to standard care. And many younger military members may also prefer a telehealth treatment option.

Veterans Affairs Outpatient Settings

Over many years CAMS has been extensively trained to providers across VA mental health treatment settings including VA medical centers and Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs).

VA clinicians have a keen interest in the model and suicidal veterans anecdotally find the model helpful, but further clinical trial research is needed which is now being pursued by our research team.

Emergency Respite Care

As mentioned earlier, over the past several years, the state of Oklahoma has embraced the Zero Suicide policy model and has sought to systematically train CAMS to providers in their public mental health system. As part of their process improvement initiative, hundreds of outpatient providers and clinicians who work in brief intensive respite clinics have been trained to use CAMS in places where suicidal patients are stabilized over a 48-hr period and then discharged.

In the optimal care transition model, CAMS is initiated within crisis respite care to help stabilize the patient who is then discharged to a CAMS-trained provider who can continue the CAMS-guided care initiated in respite in an uninterrupted manner on an outpatient basis.

Partial Hospitalization

There has been some interest in using CAMS within partial hospitalization service settings. For example, there was some early clinical use of CAMS within a group format for severely mentally ill patients in a day treatment program within a VA Medical Center.

Partial programs offer intensive treatment in a more cost-effective and least-restrictive form of care. So it seems inevitable that CAMS will increasingly be used in such settings in the years ahead as a viable alternative to more expensive inpatient psychiatric care.

Inpatient Psychiatric Hospitalization

Within the current system of mental health care, individuals who are at imminent risk for suicide are often referred for inpatient care. And while the inpatient psychiatric setting may provide a safe and supportive environment for specific acute care services and stabilization, most of the interventions provided to suicidal patients are neither suicide-specific nor evidence-based.

In a report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) and SAMHSA DJ Knesper noted:

“. . . the research base for inpatient hospitalization for suicide risk is surprisingly weak. This review could not identify a single randomized controlled trial about the effectiveness of hospitalization in reducing suicidal acts after discharge”.

Thankfully, this is changing as adaptations of the SSF and CAMS are being used to effectively assess and treat suicidal risk within inpatient settings. Most notably, the Mayo Clinic has used the SSF assessment to inform inpatient treatment and disposition discharge planning, and has further integrated the SSF into their routine assessment used with all patients at admission.

In terms of treatment, a Swiss team created an inpatient version of CAMS that was associated with dramatic decreases in overall symptom distress and suicidal risk in a sample of 45 suicidal inpatients over the course of 10 days of inpatient care.

Our team is currently exploring the use of an intensive inpatient version of CAMS, called CAMS Intensive Inpatient Care (CAMSIIC) which has been used in several inpatient treatment settings within the U.S. over a 3- to 6-day hospital stay. CAMS Brief Intervention involves conducting Session 1 of CAMS during a brief inpatient stay necessitates the development of a stabilization plan, discussions of access to lethal means, and preliminary identification of issues in need of treatment (i.e., suicidal drivers) all of which should be quite relevant to the disposition of the patient upon discharge.

An adapted inpatient version of CAMS has also been used successfully at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. Referred to as CAMS-M, this adaptation offers CAMS twice per week with highly suicidal inpatients over a 50- to 60-day stay with clinicians focusing on intensively treating suicidal drivers while the nursing staff focuses on stabilization planning. The entire team then focuses on meaningful suicide-specific disposition and discharge planning.

In an initial open trial, a case series investigation of the effectiveness of CAMS within this longer-term inpatient psychiatric setting found statistically and clinically significant reductions in depression, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and improvement in relation to suicidal drivers for 20 inpatients (Ellis, Green et al., 2012). A second study at the Menninger Clinic found significant changes in overall suicide ideation and suicide-related thoughts.

How CAMS Helps Diverse Populations

As a flexible clinical framework, CAMS has proven to be uniquely adaptable and modifiable to meet the needs of different patients, providers, and systems of care in the “real world” of psychological services. This adaptability has lead to CAMS being used to help diverse patient populations from suicidal inpatient teenagers at Seattle Children’s Hospital to suicide-specific group therapy within VA health care settings, and even the California state prison system and juvenile justice facilities in Georgia.

A systems approach to suicide prevention has clearly emerged as the best means for raising the overall standard of clinical care for suicidal patients with the promise of saving lives. Zero Suicide is a game-changing policy initiative that is gaining traction in the U.S. and abroad.

We have presented a stepped care model of suicide that is designed to treat suicidal risk in an evidence-based, least restrictive, and cost-effective manner. Moreover, we have shown the potential value of applying and using the CAMS evidence-based approach across the full range of psychological services—from paraprofessional interventions, to outpatient settings, to respite care, to partial care, and to inpatient psychiatric care.

CAMS may not work for every suicidal patient or setting, but it is highly adaptable and effective for a range of suicidal patients across systems of clinical care. Given that suicide is the fatality of mental health care, we urge members in our field to do all that we can to enhance our abilities to effectively assess and treat suicidal risk across the full range of organized health care settings to help save lives.

Contact us to learn more about CAMS training and a range of applications for CAMS and the SSF for clinicians and providers across the world.

How NeuroFlow is Combining Technology and Treatment to Prevent Suicide

NeuroFlow and CAMS-care partner to offer an evidence based therapeutic framework for suicide-specific assessment and treatment on electronic medical records.

Enhancing an already unique partnership, CAMS-care and NeuroFlow are once again teaming up to help create a happier and healthier world. The latest element of the partnership now gives clinicians using NeuroFlow access to the CAMS evidence based Suicide Status Form to treat patients with serious thoughts of suicide.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,there are 12.2 million adults and 3 million adolescents in the United States who are thinking of ending their lives. The Joint Commission, the Surgeon General, the CDC and Zero Suicide all reference the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) as one of a handful of evidence-based treatments that clinicians should use to reduce suicidal ideation.

Most clinicians today either don’t know that evidence-based treatments exist, have not been trained, or lack access to them in their electronic medical records. Building on an already existing, mission-aligned partnership between the two organizations, this development addresses these issues directly by getting evidence-based resources to care providers when it matters most.

“NeuroFlow is committed to integrating technology with evidence-based practices. Our partnership with CAMS-care provides a solution for the Treat step in Zero Suicide, putting clinicians on the NeuroFlow platform at the forefront of suicide prevention with access to tools that properly Identify, Engage and Treat the patient,” noted Matt Miclette, Head of Clinical Operations.

About NeuroFlow

NeuroFlow provides best-in-class technology and care services for the effective integration of behavioral health. NeuroFlow’s HIPAA-compliant platform supports over 14 million users across 300 health systems, payors, and organizations, helping them capture behavioral health insights and take action to proactively manage individuals and populations holistically.

Visit the NeuroFlow site

About the CAMS Framework®

Developed by David A. Jobes, Ph.D., ABPP, the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) Framework is a both a clinical philosophy of care and a therapeutic framework for suicide-specific assessment, management, and treatment of a patient’s suicidal risk. With an evidence base supported by multiple randomized controlled trials (RCTs) from around the world, CAMS focuses on empathy, honesty, and collaboration to form a strong alliance between the caregiver and patient to motivate the patient to save their life instead of ending it.

View the Suicide Status Form

About CAMS-care

Our mission is to save lives through effective care by training clinicians to treat suicidal patients. We have developed CAMS Trained™ and CAMS Certified™ designations, which licensed clinicians can achieve through completing training and gaining hands-on experience in the CAMS Framework. Never again feel unprepared when working with a person with serious thoughts of sucide.

Learn more about CAMS-care training & certification

The NEED for Competence and Confidence

I recently recorded a two-hour workshop on Zoom for a virtual presentation at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium Conference that is held every year in Washington DC (in non-pandemic times). This conference is a major professional event for psychotherapists across disciplines and I was thrilled to be invited to do this workshop.

To my delight, the organizers proposed the following title: “Treating Suicide Risk with Competence and Confidence: How to Move Beyond our Fears.” I liked this title for many reasons but mostly because of the emphasis on competence and confidence which is critical for effectively working with patients who are suicidal.

I also loved the idea of “moving beyond fear” because for many practitioners, fear is what drives defensive practices and/or avoidance of patients who are suicidal. Clinical fears include fear of litigation should there be a bad outcome, fear of not being able to control the patient’s self-destructive behaviors, fear of investing in therapeutic care and concern for patient only to lose them to suicide. As I have previously blogged and written about many times, clinicians’ fear and avoidance of patients who are suicidal is a major barrier for patients receiving effective and potentially life-saving care.

Upon reflection the presentation turned out well, I think? One never knows talking at their laptop for two straight hours. In the virtual workshop I did my usual tour, beginning with the field’s historic mishandling of people who are mentally ill, which is frankly a pretty horrifying story of marginalizing persons who suffered, seeing them as deviants possessed by evil spirits. It is noteworthy that every major world religion has some form of ritual exorcism. Long before effective treatments took root, societies around the world largely responded to abnormal behavior through prayers, exorcism rituals, and crude interventions such as waterboarding and trephination (drilling large holes in the cranium to release evil spirits). Critically, people who were mentally ill were marginalized to the fringes of society as they were literally chained up in dank cellars, imprisoned in appalling jails, and ultimately sent to asylums.

There was a movement in the late 18th century led by Dr. Phillipe Pinel outside of Paris to liberate people who were mentally ill from their chains with the advent of so-called “moral treatment.” While philosophically compelling with some who aspired to make asylums a genuine kind of sanctuary (e.g., the 19th-century Kirkbride asylums in the United States) the reality of moral treatment was not reflected in the reality of “care” for those who struggled with mental disorders.

In fact, “lunatics” where warehoused, restrained, assaulted, and later in the 20th century given brutal treatments of electroconvulsive therapy (often breaking bones as patients convulsed) and the horrific use of “icepick” lobotomies. The latter was particularly crude and inexact—a Washington DC physician name Walter Freeman performed thousands of lobotomies, driving from hospital to hospital performing up to a dozen lobotomies per visit. He would take a sharp steel tool resembling an icepick that was hammered through the orbit of the patient’s eye through the cranium to sever—rather ineptly—portions of the frontal lobes. The procedure was initially celebrated as a wonder cure because patient behavior changed dramatically (despite patients dying and some receiving multiple “treatments”). Bottom line, not good.

Taken together it is a horrifying history that reflects a fundamental fear of mental illness and a societal desire to control abnormal behaviors by any means. Doctors largely sought to dominate, control, and restrict potentially undesirable behaviors—bizarre movements, violence, and of course suicide.

I take pains to share this sordid history because it is truly relevant to contemporary care. Certain patients—such as people who are suicidal—can evoke intense fear and be experienced as a threat, an adversary, and someone to be avoided. But in the clinical life-saving business it is extremely difficult to help save a life from suicide if the clinician is fundamentally afraid of their patient. And as I have noted in this blog there is a significant historic lineage of non-therapeutic fear.

The presentation then delved into my review of screening for suicidal risk, the use of assessment tools, and the relative limits—and problems—related to clinical judgement, not the least of which is the notable overconfidence that clinicians have in their “gut” judgement and their general aversion to assessment tools therein.

Next, I reviewed interventions that focus on the management of acute suicidal crises (e.g., safety planning, use of the National Lifeline and Textline, and lethal means safety). Having reviewed these topics, I then delved into the evidence-base of suicide-focused treatments (DBT, CT-SP, BCBT) which are supported by rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the notable limits and lack of RCT support for medications in relation to suicidal risk. It follows that a good portion of the second hour focused on CAMS as a patient-centered, evidence-based, suicide-focused, clinical treatment supported by five published RCTs.

Here is the point. I do workshop talks all the time; I can expand, or contract the content, as needed depending on the forum and audience. But what really struck me about this Zoom-based workshop was that it targeted an audience that may feel fearful of suicidal risk,  which led to my sponsors’ proposed title. They expressly wanted me to address an audience of practitioners who need to move beyond fear to better help patients who struggle with suicidal thoughts.

Within this simple realization a few things struck me. I learned years ago in graduate school about the critical role that fear plays in our lives. Fear is limbic-based (the “older” part of our brain) and primitive. Fear is central to our “fight or flight” response that kept our ancestors alive. But fear also has the  power to paralyze—the proverbial deer in headlights. I also learned early on with a patient who was profoundly traumatized and diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (i.e., multiple personality disorder).

Together we discovered a wonderful therapeutic “fairy tale” book about dissociation that noted the following key idea:  behind every fear is a legitimate need. Thus, if an ancient ancestor was chased by a  sabretooth tiger, it evoked tremendous fear and a clear need for safety from the predator so as to not be devoured. It follows, that in a contemporary sense, if we fear working with a person who is suicidal, there is a fundamental need for clinical competence (to do something that works) and confidence to work effectively with this inherently scary issue.

Fortunately, CAMS can offer a reliable path to clinical competence and confidence, which is the best way to deal with the clinical fear. Competence is rooted in doing something proven effective; with competence, confidence can follow. And here is the thing about confidence: it creates a placebo effect in the patient. If we can therefore be competent and confident, patients feel it and it changes their brain chemistry (as proven by placebologists who study the effect and changes that are seen in MRIs). And here is another thing about confidence: we know that training in CAMS significantly increases clinician confidence as per a rigorous study of trainings conducted by Dorian Lamis and his research team in Georgia (Associations of Suicide Prevention Trainings with Practices and Confidence among Clinicians at Community Mental Health Centers).

In summary, in the face of our fears about working with people who are suicidal, we can realize and embrace our need to practice with competence by using evidence-based approaches like CAMS. Moreover, we also know that training in CAMS significantly instills confidence in mental health providers, which changes brain chemistry and may play a critical role in in helping to clinically save lives.

Hope

Hope is such a simple word. Yet for suicidal people in the depths of despair, hope is a beacon that they crave more than anything – but abjectly fear, because to believe in hope means to risk catastrophic disappointment. What I have come to learn over my decades in suicide prevention is that hope is everything to finding a way out of suicidal hell and into a life worth living with purpose and meaning.

There is a recent study of CAMS that I will be talking and writing about for years to come. For now, I will await publication of the investigation before saying more. But one of the key findings that most warmed my heart was how hope is engendered in suicidal patients engaged in CAMS.

Indeed, we know across clinical trials of CAMS that hopelessness is reliably decreased over the course of care while hope—and even optimism—is generated by the intervention as well. I know hope when I see it, and sparks of hope routinely occur at certain key moments across CAMS sessions. Within the first session of CAMS when the clinician and patient collaboratively complete the initial Suicide Status Form assessment there are often tiny sparks of hope. As the patient warily rates and describes elements of their struggle and the empathic clinician listens, validates, and actually gets what they are describing, there can be a glimmer of hope. When the clinician helps the patient elaborate the struggle and does not judge them, shame them, or ever wag a finger, there can be a flash of hope. When the clinician candidly speaks to the goal of keeping even a relatively highly suicidal person out of the hospital (if at all possible), there can be a spark of hope. So you are not going to try to get rid of me and lock me up?.

When the dyad carefully develops the CAMS Stabilization Plan for the patient and the clinician notes that the patient can learn to cope differently without resorting to suicide, there is often a curious look and sometime a twinkle of hope. Perhaps most dramatically, when the dyad completes the initial CAMS Treatment Plan in which the patient’s own suicidal “drivers” are identified (i.e., issues and problems that compel the patient to entertain suicide), goals and objectives are set, and potential interventions to target and treat those very drivers are noted, there is often an unmistakable flash of hope in the patients eyes. “Can you really treat these problems?” says an incredulous patient. In turn, the clinician replies, “…yes, of course we treat these problems all the time and if we do so successfully with you, perhaps you will come to see that you don’t need to end your life.” This is how CAMS-inspired hope may emerge in a first session.

My Suicide Prevention Lab (SPL) at Catholic University has been dedicated to many suicide prevention-oriented studies over many years. But one of the biggest tasks of the SPL my graduate students and I undertake is the fidelity and adherence work that we routinely do as part of clinical trials of CAMS. Fidelity is a solemn obligation within clinical trial research that requires that research investigators ensure that experimental and control treatments are indeed different from each other.

For example, within a CAMS randomized controlled trial (RCT) that means clinicians in the CAMS arm of the trial are doing the intervention adherently (as it was designed to be used) and clinicians in the control arm of the trial are not doing CAMS and are adherently providing the comparison treatment (e.g., usual treatment or Dialectical Behavior Therapy within our trials).

Here is the point: our job in these RCTs is to watch a lot of digital recordings of clinicians doing CAMS and often watching control sessions to ensure that the control treatment is being done properly. In other words, this fidelity work means we watch hundreds of hours of therapy sessions with suicidal people who are willing to participate in a RCT. It is from this perspective that my trained eye has come to recognize the behavioral, verbal, and emotional indicators of hope.

Hope is sometimes reflected in the almost shy glance that a patient makes towards the clinician—it is a look that says, are you for real? Can I trust you? Do you really mean it when you say you care about me? In later interim sessions of CAMS, hope is seen in a patient who sits up just a little straighter than they did in earlier sessions and who is genuinely interested in the clinician’s comments and input on their life and death struggle. Hope is seen in the flicker of smiles between patient and therapist as the dyad reviews “a good week.” Hope is often seen in an outcome-disposition session that formally draws CAMS to a close, wherein both parties reflect on how far they have come, appreciating and taking stock of gains made, and look forward to the road ahead in the patient’s “post-suicidal life.”

While the quantitative clinical trial results are robust, we know that decreasing hopelessness and increasing hope within CAMS is the lifeblood of a successful course of CAMS-guided care. Hope is simply the remedy to suicidal despair, desolation, despondency. And when you have seen the spark of hope in the eyes of suicidal person, you will never forget it. It is as if an entire inexorable fatal world view has been paused, gradually reconsidered, and even transformed into a world of potential possibilities.

In truth, hope does not happen every time with every patient. But within adherently provided CAMS we know that hope happens more often than not, and when hope happens truly anything is possible.

Such a simple word, hope, but in the suicide prevention and life-worth-living business it speaks volumes.

Considering Suicidal Ideation—Again!

In recent years I have spoken, published, and blogged about the relative importance of suicidal ideation as a public health concern that does not get the proper health concern of the public. A couple of other reminders came up just last week that again underscores the need to fundamentally shift our focus to appreciating the magnitude of the suicidal ideation population, which is 225 times greater than the population of those that die by suicide.

I was reviewing the most recent 2019 data from SAMHSA about the incidence of suicide-related concerns among American adults that calendar year. Take a close look at Figure 60 from the SAMHSA report—does anything particularly strike you?

Serious Thoughts of Suicide Graph

As I look at this figure my eyes are naturally drawn to the highlighted blue, green, and yellow regions that respectively reflect those who made suicide plans, those who made plans and attempted suicide, those who attempted suicide, and finally those who made no plans and attempted suicide (not sure how that works exactly but such are the data).

But upon some reflection, what jumps off the page to me is that the outer circle depicts 12,000,000 American adults with serious thoughts of suicide which is not highlighted, earning only a modest gray coloring. This SAMHSA report figure thus completely fails to highlight the true objective magnitude of our suicide ideation challenge!

My question is:  Why is this population graphically trivialized in this figure? In truth, 12M Americans is a massive population, roughly the size of the state populations of Pennsylvania or Illinois. If we are truly examining the challenge of suicide as a public health issue, we of course care deeply about 48,000+ of Americans who died by suicide in 2018, and the 1.4M attempting suicide in 2019 is extremely concerning as well – but frankly these populations are utterly dwarfed by the massive suicide ideation population. And it logically follows that if we were better at identifying and treating this gigantic population, we may have many fewer attempts and ultimately many fewer completions. Right?

As I recently blogged, I have been honored to be a part of a small team that is working to write an addendum to the 2018 Recommended Standard Care for People with Suicide Risk: Making Health Care Suicide Safe promulgated by the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention. This draft addendum focuses on the apparent inclination of some health care systems to discontinue or suspend screening and assessment of suicidal risk since the Covid-19 pandemic which has driven our health care to online/telehealth modalities. In the forthcoming addendum there is a reassertion that even within telehealth there is a reasonable way to screen and assess for suicide risk (even if this is done asynchronously). In the addendum we have argued that not asking about suicide is no way to go about actually preventing suicides. After all, it is hard to save lives if we do not know that patients are at risk.

Here is the point:  in my final review of the carefully written document our language tended to emphasize depression and suicidal behaviors, not even mentioning the importance of suicidal ideation. Even I, who have held these beliefs for some time, completely missed this omission in early drafts!

Mind you, depression and suicide are not synonymous; out of the 132 Americans that die from suicide each day in the U.S., roughly half may be clinically depressed (many others will be psychotic, anxious, substance abusing, personality disordered, etc.). In other words, depression is not even remotely the cause of many of our suicides since millions of Americans are clinically depressed and only a small fraction of them die by suicide.

In my final review of our addendum I made edits to de-emphasize depression and suicidal behaviors in lieu of emphasizing suicidal ideation, particularly as it relates to screening and assessment within a telehealth modality during a worldwide pandemic. I am pleased to note that while depression remains in the document, we have properly underscored the import of suicidal ideation and cited the SAMHSA paper noted above.

This is not going to be the last time that I appeal for us to recalibrate our suicide prevention policy, research, and clinical care focus to stop this peculiar bias to overly focusing on suicidal behaviors while dangerously disregarding suicidal ideation. My journal papers should not be rejected because CAMS “only” reduced suicidal ideation. Indeed, I would note within the clinical treatment research that other excellent suicide-focused interventions (e.g., DBT, CT-SP, and BCBT) do not reliably reduce suicidal ideation like CAMS does. However, these interventions more reliably reduce suicide attempts (while CAMS has only promising behavioral data thus far). The clinical trial data to date are exactly why I have strongly argued against a “one size does not fit all” approach to care for suicidal risk.

So, I am going to keep on banging the suicide ideation drum, appealing to those in our field to more completely consider the import and magnitude of the suicidal ideation population. In truth, if we truly aim to reduce completed suicides, our research, practices, and policies must better target and treat the underlying iceberg of suicidal ideation so as to reduce the tip above the water of suicide attempts and ultimately deaths by suicide.

First Touch: Administrative Policy vs. Caring Concern, Empathy, Validation, and Truth

“I sure hope I can get her to come back so I can do CAMS with her. I think she would really benefit…but I’m afraid that she may have been scared off by our bio-psycho-social intake!”

This was said to me on a coaching call last week with a savvy Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) I had previously trained, along with others who work with veterans and their dependents. This colleague was referring to the 19-year old dependent of a divorced veteran, who had been referred by her veteran father after she made a low-lethality overdose. The patient had just endured a 2-hour intake process required by agency policy, and this counselor was having trouble reaching her after her experience.

This account pains me greatly, and it is certainly not the first time I have encountered this problem – the effects of extremely long intake processes and administrative paperwork that most clinical settings require before any therapeutic care is provided to suicidal patients. I have been told by such agencies that “there are no exceptions.” So, even though a person is struggling with acute suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors, he or she must first endure hours of questions – some as inane as their birth order and whether they were delivered by forceps – before receiving any therapeutic assessment or suicide-specific treatment.

I believe there is often a unique moment, a window, of potential engagement that is squandered by unnecessarily long intake interviews and administrative paperwork. Administrative exceptions can and should be made for those who struggle with suicide. If we truly aim to clinically prevent suicides, the first touch experience for patients should be one of caring concern, empathy, validation, and truth – in other words, the CAMS assessment. I know this to be true because a published metanalysis proves that the CAMS assessment functions as a “therapeutic assessment” and further, we know from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that suicidal patients prefer CAMS to usual care.

I face opposition to my position on the matter regularly. I win some, and I lose many. My first significant win occurred many years ago in a randomized controlled trial at a large VA Medical Center. In this instance, The Joint Commission’s “staff expert” was insisting on the first contact with the suicidal patient to be a 2-hour intake interview. The Chief of the service sided with me and agreed CAMS should be the first touch. I was thrilled to take the “win”.

However, at another large military medical center we were discussing how an abbreviated version of CAMS could be used in their emergency department, and the debate did not go my way. In this instance, not only was the provider arguing to initiate contact with a suicidal patient with an exhaustive intake procedure, but also stated “we could never engage on the topic of suicide so directly and quickly without forming a relationship first”, which he described as chatting about “the weather, sports, and the usual stuff”. I adamantly shared my opinion that such superficial chit-chat is ridiculous (it not only trivializes the seriousness of the patient’s suicidality, it is also transparently patronizing) and is no way to form a meaningful clinical relationship with a suicidal person.

As you might guess, I didn’t make many friends that day. Instead I was summarily dismissed, with the suggestion that I knew nothing about their military suicide patients and the challenges they faced. In truth, I have worked with suicidal military veterans for over 30 years, covering all four branches of the armed forces. I was appointed to a Veterans Blue-Ribbon panel by the Secretary of the VA, and to the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Task Force. I was selected as a member of these investigative groups to become intimately knowledgeable of this “military suicide problem” in order to develop solutions. Finding the solutions was not the most difficult task – getting military mental health settings to implement them proved to be almost impossible.

The negative and vexing experiences these rigid and fruitless intake procedures cause simply must be reconciled with the reality of the challenges facing the suicidal person—and their provider—each time someone struggling seeks help that might avert a suicide outcome. The reality is that it is very scary for many to seek mental health care at all, let alone seeking care when one is contemplating ending their life by suicide. To be greeted by a stack of administrative documents and then subjected to an exhaustive “required” intake interview experience that may last up to two hours throws cold water on a patient’s motivation to seek care—it can be an instant turn off. Such requirements may close a window of opportunity to help save a person’s life through an evidence-based, suicide-focused treatment like CAMS. If we truly aim to clinically prevent suicides, the first touch experience for that patient should be one of caring concern, empathy, validation, and truth. Not data gathering and procedure-for-the-sake-of-procedure.

Our clinical experience and extensive research have shown that CAMS can be used to create a strong therapeutic relationship, forged in the crucible of the suicidal crisis. This is because CAMS providers go right into the patient’s suicidal struggle as they quickly engage with empathy, collaboration, and honesty using the Suicide Status Form.

I understand how people get comfortable with how things have always been done and fall into an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. But what if it is broken? What if there is research evidence that proves it is broken, and by not fixing it many lives are lost? Shouldn’t we step out of this “comfort zone”? There are examples all around us of courageous people taking a stand to change policies that are wrong and harmful to individuals. It won’t be easy and it will be a long process, but those of us who believe in putting our patients first must fight for what the research is telling us and fix the currently broken mental health care system.

I will continue to beat this drum. In the meantime, for those mental health professionals who approach me with their challenges of how to effectively engage a suicidal patient when burdened with long intake interview requirements, I recommend that they not give up on the person. Follow up with the patient by phone or e-mail to get them to come back for a CAMS assessment and treatment. Additionally, when sending e-mail, include information about CAMS (Fact Sheet for CAMS Patients).  Besides working to change the system from within, it may be the best we can do for now. Lack of purposeful and caring follow-up may result in lost opportunities, and I fear possibly lost lives.

I do hope that 19-year-old patient comes back to give CAMS a try – it could make all the difference in her world and give her a second chance at life.

Jaspr: Using Avatars in Emergency Departments with Suicidal Patients Brings New Hope

It was a hot summer afternoon half a dozen years ago and I was talking to a couple of new colleagues, Dr. Linda Dimeff and Kelly Koerner, both of whom had trained under and worked with my research mentor Marsha Linehan (the famous developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy–DBT). Linda was describing to me a fascinating study that was conducted at the University of Boston using a computer-based avatar of a medical-surgical discharge nurse (named “Nurse Louise”). The clinical trial study that we were discussing compared the impact of the Nurse Louise avatar to a living discharge nurse in terms of patient compliance with discharge orders. To my amazement the outcomes for the avatar “nurse” were far superior to the living nurse with significant reductions in recidivism (among other desirable outcomes).

Linda then asked me about the general experience of suicidal patients in emergency departments (EDs), which I knew to be uniformly negative (both as a clinician and from the relevant ED/suicide literature). Linda then proposed something outlandish: that we go for a NIMH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to create an all new avatar-based intervention using a modified version of CAMS as the heart of the assessment and intervention.

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“Dr. Dave” – the first avatar

Ultimately this initial conversation led to a “proof of concept” Phase I NIMH SBIR grant that supported the creation and preliminary investigation of “Dr. Dave”—a rather pedestrian avatar based on me! The patient will work through a CAMS-based Suicide Status Interview (SSI) assessment for suicidal ED patients while they wait, often for many hours, to see their ED doctor for evaluation and treatment disposition.

The Phase I study was a resounding success and we published an initial paper of our findings in a peer-review journal. The success of this proof of concept lead to a Phase II SBIR grant from NIMH to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of this new ED-based intervention.  I have come to truly love this line of research for many reasons.

Perhaps foremost in my mind, is that with some exceptions (for example, the inspired work by Dr. Ed Boudreaux), the ED has largely been completely ignored as a place to effectively work with suicidal risk. And yet every day around the world, suicidal people sit 6, 10, or 20 hours sometimes being “boarded” overnight waiting to see their ED doctor. For patients struggling with acute suicidal pain this ED wait is an intolerable eternity and it is not uncommon that patients simply give up and walk out the door.

Another amazing thing about this research has been the incredible engagement of people with lived experience (those individuals who have previously been suicidal, made attempts, and sat in ED for countless hours). We have harnessed the power of this perspective which has transformed the Dr. Dave avatar experience into “Jaspr Heath” which is now a multipurpose tablet-based engagement experience that still features the CAMS-based SSI assessment and a version of CAMS intervention in the form of a Stabilization Plan. Dr. Dave is gone and has been replaced by a virtual guide named “Jasper” (a little cartoon character) or  a pleasant looking woman, by the name of “Jaz” (a much better alternative to my original avatar, which frankly, frightened my wife and kids).

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“Jasper” or “Jaz” can then introduce a full array of options to engage the suicidal ED patient, including education about the ED experience and what to expect while they are there. Patients are offered access to a menu of “Comfort and Skills” which is content to help them learn new options for coping, ranging from DBT-inspired coping skills to comforting video content of puppies playing, a crackling fireplace, to distracting techniques, etc. There is also an option to engage in video content of people with lived experience who provide hope and inspiration through their own stories of despair and redemption and lessons learned.

The Jaspr Health patient engagement ultimately produces a detailed report for busy ED providers that provides key assessment information about the patient’s suicidal risk, their CAMS-inspired Stabilization Plan, information about their access to lethal means (and willingness to secure such means), and further considerations that should help shape and inform an optimal disposition plan for the patient. For their engagement with Jaspr, patients are provided a digital companion app of their “favorite” content from the Jaspr engagement that they can download to their smart phone or laptop.

To get a taste of the Jaspr experience, check out a 2 minute YouTube video at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9zbM8jEsvY&feature=youtu.be)

As per Phase II, in the last year we began using Jaspr Health in a rigorous RCT within ED care at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN. It is fair to say, that doing ED-based research is challenging even in the best of circumstances. But adding the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic to the mix made our ED-based research impossible to further pursue and the RCT was abruptly interrupted in March to accommodate needed ED space and focus on COVID-19 patients. With about a third of the sample recruited, we went ahead and did a preliminary analysis of the 30+ ED patients that had been engaged in the RCT prior to COVID-19 preempting further RCT data collection. With limited statistical power (due to the small sample), we were nevertheless thrilled with significant and favorable findings fully supporting the use of Jaspr Health. I will leave the particulars for a later blog as the study and our preliminary results are now under review in a paper that we recently submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. But suffice it to say, even we were stunned by the incredibly positive results from suicidal ED patients’ engagement with Jaspr. We are planning to continue the Jaspr RCT when the COVID-19 transmission and infection rates become more stable.

The Jaspr research experience has been an unexpected gift within my professional life. I have never been particularly savvy with technology and as a provider and professor of clinical psychology, I am very biased to favor a live person-to-person clinical engagement between a provider and patient. But the Jaspr experience has taught me new lessons about what can work in the service of saving lives. The technology of Jaspr is impressive. The ED experience is uniformly negative, but the Jaspr engagement makes it much more tolerable and ensures that time in the ED a productive and valuable experience for the patient with benefits for busy ED providers as well.

These benefits of Jaspr need not end as the patient leaves the ED because they will have access to Jaspr-based content that is downloaded to their phone or laptop. I am a pragmatist, and with 10,600,000 adult Americans struggling with serious suicidal ideation each year, we need any and all help possible to address that suffering in the service of saving more lives from suicide. As our research continues to unfold, I am convinced that Jaspr can play a key role in that pursuit.