Full article originally published September 26, 2019 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

The Problem: Suicide is a Major Public Health Issue

Suicide accounts for almost 800,000 deaths per year [1] around the world. In the United States suicide is the 10th leading cause of death with approximately 47,000 total deaths in 2017 and 1.4 million American adults attempted suicide in that same year [2]. While suicidologists and public health officials are understandably preoccupied with suicide deaths and suicide attempts, Jobes and Joiner [3] have recently reflected on the massive population of people who experience suicidal ideation and all too often escape the attention of our suicide prevention research, clinical treatments, and even national health care policies. In the United States, 10,600,000 American adults experience serious suicidal thoughts [4]—a worrisome cohort that dwarfs the populations of those who attempt and die by suicide.

To fully address the many challenges to clinical suicide risk reduction we will consider: the history of mental health care and its legacy for suicidal patients, the notion of mindsets about how to best help care for suicidal people, various contemporary developments that may be changing mindsets about clinical suicide prevention, the historic pursuit of suicidal typologies, evidence-based suicide-focused treatments, and finally a stepped care public health model.

History of Suicide Prevention

The history of the field of mental health and the treatment of suicidal patients is rather sordid and includes many disturbing developments over the years. Prior to European enlightenment, the mentally ill were largely understood to be deviants possessed by the devil and (or) evil spirits; religious exorcisms were frontline “treatments” [5]. It is interesting to note that some form of ritual exorcism exists across the major world religions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam). It was not until the latter 18th century that mentally ill “lunatics” began to be understood and treated with more compassion as patients with an illness. The innovative French doctor Phillippe Pinel famously ordered in 1795 that mentally ill patients be released from their chains at a large asylum named la Salpetriere outside of Paris. This launched the notion of “moral treatment,” which helped change perceptions about mental illness and how such people with these illnesses should be treated [6]. Unfortunately, the continued association of mental illness with “asylums” of this era and in the years that followed does not seem either enlightened or particularly moral.

Early “treatments” of the mentally ill were crude and physically harmful (e.g., bloodletting and trephination—the drilling of holes in the cranium) [5]. Various methods of inducing seizures or comas were explored and collectively referred to as shock therapies in the early 20th century [7]. There was extensive experimentation using electricity that ultimately resulted in the development of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), which in the present day has been found to be helpful as a last resort for patients with treatment-resistant, severe depression [8]. Massive doses of insulin were repeatedly administered to patients with schizophrenia to induced comas—insulin coma therapy (ICT) [9]. Behavior-altering surgeries such as lobotomies and cingulotomies were used often in the mid-20th century to control patient behavior [5].

Psychopharmacology Treatment of Suicidal Patients

Psychiatric care of the mentally ill took a notable turn in the 1950s with the advent of first-generation antipsychotic medications. The evolution of psychotropic medications has been extensive and has come to shape the prevailing assumptions about suicidal patients—that treating a mental disorder is the key to reducing the symptoms of suicidal ideation and behavior.

While medications have undoubtedly helped many who suffer from mental disorders, there is extensive evidence that targeting and treating mental disorders has little or mixed impact on suicidal risk [10–12]. Despite the widespread use of medication, there is fairly limited data (based on randomized controlled trials—RCTs) about the efficacy of medicine on suicidality [13]. For example, the emergent use of ketamine on suicidal ideation for a few days [14] has short-lived e for some suicidal patients. There is meta-analytic support for lithium carbonate among suicidal bipolar patients [15] and one un-replicated RCT has shown that clozapine can reduce suicidal ideation and attempts among thought-disordered patients [16]. Data on the effectiveness of anti-depressants with suicidal risk are quite mixed [10]. Notably, there are now three meta-analyses showing that treating mental disorders has little to no impact on suicidal ideation and behavior [10–12]. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence, prominent experts (e.g., [17]) insist on the primacy of treating mental disorders to reduce suicidal risk, even trivializing the effectiveness of suicide-focused psychological treatments that have been proven to work by replicated data from rigorous randomized controlled trials.

Legacy of Mental Health

So, what is the legacy of our history of managing and treating mentally ill people? On the one hand, humanity has been able to move from superstition and fantastic explanations for abnormal behavior to a more clinical and interventive approach. On the other hand, the legacy has created a “doctor knows best” mentality marked by a custodial, coercive, and paternal model that largely centers on controlling behaviors, by force if necessary. Relevant to our present consideration of the suicidal patient, a further remnant of this history is the idea that suicidal people belong in the hospital and that being suicidal is by definition “crazy,” so we must therefore treat this particular form of insanity. There are of course consequences to such considerations. Indeed, there is evidence that negative views of inpatient psychiatric care and fear of being hospitalized may compel suicidal patients to not be forthright with their clinical provider about their suicidal thoughts [18]. Moreover, insisting on the pre-eminence of treating mental disorders (particularly using only medicine) for suicidal risk defies the extensive evidence-base that supports the effectiveness of targeting and treating suicidal ideation and behaviors independently of psychiatric diagnoses (refer to [19]).

A Fixed Mindset about Suicidal Patient Care?

To be balanced and fair, we agree that countless suicidal people have likely been helped by inpatient psychiatric care and psychotropic medications. Nevertheless, the previously discussed lack of suicide-specific evidence is rather striking. To this end, Jobes has argued that some contemporary providers may make assumptions about the presumed effectiveness of inpatient care and the use of medicine on suicidal risk [20]. Importantly, such presumptions can have a major impact on the patient’s clinical disposition, and even the course of their entire life. What is particularly concerning is that some clinicians may find themselves not always working in the patient’s best interest due to countertransference issues or fear of litigation should a patient take their life. In turn, such issues and fears may lead to overly defensive practices (e.g., hospitalizing a patient who has passive suicidal thoughts). Moreover, such practice behaviors may be shaped by wishful thinking that a three to six-day hospital stay or that treating the mental disorder with medicine is actually more effective for suicidal risk than alternative approaches that are supported by the data.

Thus, there may be a misguided notion that a “one-size” approach (i.e., a brief hospitalization and medication to treat the disorder) will work for all suicidal patients [21]. Another way of understanding the possible insistence by some that these approaches are effective can be explained by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s [22] notion of a psychological “mindset.” Dweck’s empirical work has shown the existence of two distinct mindsets: a “fixed” mindset versus a “growth” mindset. Her research shows how these mindsets are reliably associated with different outcomes for personal and professional success, and a growth mindset is much more adaptive and linked to successful outcomes.

Given this line of thinking, is it possible that many mental health providers have developed a certain fixed mindset about what is best for a suicidal person? It is hard for anyone to say with certainty, but in our view, the effective assessment and treatment of suicidal risk requires a growth mindset so that we are better able to embrace suicide-focused approaches that are supported by RCT evidence. Also, we must collectively develop a growth mindset at the public health policy level to fully appreciate that a “one-size” approach to suicidality does not sufficiently address the worldwide challenge of suicidal risk [21].

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