Conference Highlights Triumphs and Shortcomings of Suicide Prevention in Alabama

March 2, 2020

conference panel

The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences faculty and staff took part in the first Suicide Prevention Network of Alabama conference at Bryant Conference Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Feb. 21. The College partnered with the Alabama Department of Mental Health Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition (ASPARC) and the Kristen Amerson Youth Foundation to bring the Suicide Prevention Network of Alabama (SPNA) conference to the 300 people in attendance.

Social workers, psychologists, physicians, researchers, school counselors and teachers came to learn how to recognize the signs of suicide and provide preventive measures. University Medical Center, which the College operates, and 12 organizations, including Crisis Services of North Alabama, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Veterans Crisis Line and the Alabama Department of Mental Health, were available to answer questions throughout the conference.

Three members of the College were part of the first panel of the day. Director Glen Davis and Program Specialist Travis Parker of the Emergency Medical Services program answered questions and directed conversation on the high risk of suicide among emergency first responders.

“It might surprise you that 37% of EMS workers have contemplated suicide,” said Davis, a nationally registered paramedic. “This needs to be addressed in our state and nationally.”

Parker elaborated on the emotional and mental trauma of working a crisis situation. It is amplified when it involves a family member or a child, he said.

Dr. Martha Crowther, a clinical psychologist and associate dean for research and health policy at the College, also participated on the panel with Parker and Davis. She answered audience questions on a variety of topics. She especially cautioned attendees not to assign mental health disorders a specific blanket cause as there are many factors that contribute to a diagnosis.

Crowther emphasized the rising rate of suicide across the nation. Across the U.S., suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2017, and the 11th most common cause of death in Alabama that year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2018, an estimated 48,000 Americans died by suicide. 

“We have to make changes across the state by partnering together to share our resources and best practices,” Crowther said. “These conversations between statewide agencies is essential.” 

Dr. Tamer Elsayed & Dr. Pike-Hough

The conference featured experts on prevention, veteran and military suicide risk, youth and suicidal rates, and the role of suicide prevention in the hospital emergency room.

Two emergency medicine physicians from CCHS, Drs. Tamer Elsayed and Michelle Pike-Hough, presented on the current practices for screening patients for suicide in the emergency room at Rush Foundation Hospital in Meridian, Mississippi. Elsayed is director of The University of Alabama Family Medicine Residency and is also an assistant professor of family, internal and rural medicine. Pike-Hough is an adjunct professor in the department.  

Each patient who comes to Rush Foundation Hospital is assessed for suicide risk, according to Elsayed and Pike-Hough. They said  most people who attempt or complete suicide have visited the emergency room in the year leading up to their suicide.

“Our rural hospitals face the added issue of having less resources than larger hospitals in cities,” said Elsayed, who also directs the Emergency Medicine Fellowship program at CCHS.

Patients at Rush Foundation Hospital who are considered at a high risk of suicide are assigned a sitter who stays with them at all times, Pike said. Sitters have to be trained before they can be with patients.

Additionally, patients who are deemed to be an immediate harm to themselves or others may be restrained, Elsayed said.

Every hospital has a different system, but most have a set policy on how to help patients who are at risk of suicidal thoughts, said Pike-Hough.

 “Starting the conversation may seem hard, but I ask those questions over a hundred times a day,” Pike-Hough said.

This was the first statewide suicide prevention conference in Alabama. Attendees from around the state came to show how Alabama is addressing the issue of suicide and how to continue improving these efforts. The event promoted ongoing suicide prevention efforts around the state and educated attendees about current suicide prevention resources.