Friday 31 July 2009


The Girl asked about managing someone with suicidal risk.

It's a contentious area because how ever you deliver care for these patients, you get it wrong.

If you want no risk, you're overly draconian and coercive and admit everyone. To assess if there's mental disorder and risk to self, you recommend they're admitted under a section of the Mental Health Act 1983 for assessment, if they decline. Why not? A few days assessment to save lives, a fair price to pay, no?

If you want to preserve patient liberty, autonomy and their ownership/control of their problems, choice, collaborative therapeuric working then you'd not detain or admit many at all. So some folk would be suicidal out in the community, with some going on to completed suicide. Whether in-patient care would prevent all that is another issue.

So you admit everyone, thus notionally reducing suicidal risk. Or you don't admit everyone, thus accepting patients (and not Secondary Care) are managing a lot of the risk themselves.

Clearly, not everyone's going to be happy all the time.

It's telling that the first theme that came to me on this issue is risk managament. That's how management of suicidality is taught, reported, framed, documented, written about. The Department of Health and Royal College aren't in the habit of sending me helpful letters about clinical elements and therapeutic elements of care, it's invariably about risk. The Trust doesn't look at quality of care or constituents of care of patient pathways, it looks principally at governance and risk.

I can see that risk management is part of the equation because if the decision's wrong then someone could die. Unlike other areas of medicine, in psychiatry this patient death often could be seen as preventable. Getting the risk management right is therefore vital (in the true sense of the word) since it's about a life.

My first evening on call as an SHO involved section 136 assessments (it was in an age when the SHO did them . . . now I'm a Consultant it's Consultants who do them) and liaison assessments in A&E (again, SHO's did those, now it's not something junior doctors are allowed to do, so it's Consultant work) and GP referrals for assessment (again, this now falls to Consultants). I'd trained as a GP before going in to psychiatry, so prior work in A&E then in GP gave me some confidence in triage, risk management and safety netting, but not the clinical competence to manage acute mental health presentations.

My first night on call involved assessing a lady in her 20's who cut herself. I took took a psychiatric history, went through mental state examination, checked we had a bed for her, 'phoned the on-call Consultant to be told to send her home. I couldn't quite get it. Her self injurious behaviour was seen by the Consultant as a sign of distress, of not being well, of poorly coping, but guessed it was part of her way of coping. I was told to send her home and arrange for her team to see her in the morning.

As time moved on this started to make more sense because what the Consultant had been sifting through was information to suggest whether there was evidence of acute psychiatric illness (necessitating acute care) or whether it was more of a psychological problem (which psychiatry couldn't fix by acute admission).

That really is what an assessment of someone feeling suicidal should be about. It should be about a clinical assessment (rather than an assessment skewed by political drivers) to look at patient need, then consequent care necessary to address that need.

Taken back to basics, this makes assessment of a suicidal patient no more fraught than assessments of someone with a chest infection.

Free will. People have free will. If someone's wishing to hurt or kill themselves and have capacity to make that decision, support can be offered but ultimately it's their choice. We can't use the Mental Health Act 1983 or Mental Capacity Act 2005 if someone's capacitated, with no mental disorder. The harsh reality is therefore that it's likely that someone could elect to kill themselves after being assessed. But if they weren't mentally ill and were offered appropriate support, surely mental health services have done their job.

Believing this has resulted in significant positive risk taking, including sending a gentleman on his way with police who was covered in petrol and threatening to immolate himself. But he wasn't mentally ill.

That's how I personally manage the assessment of suicidality without finding it too scary and being risk averse, I pull back to look at the clinical presentation and consequent need, then simply go from there . . .


The Girl said...

That makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the response. :)

Cat said...

Really interesting to see your perspective. I try to detach the emotional from the clinical but sometimes find it more difficult. I know it's the way to go though.

Seratonin said...

Thank you for making it a lot clearer how suicide risk should be managed.

Seratonin said...
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