By Ravi K. Raheja, MD
Telephone triage nurses play a critical role in suicide prevention and serve as the first point of contact for callers in need of immediate assistance. According to the CDC, 123 Americans die by suicide every day, and for every person who dies from suicide every year, another 278 people think seriously about it but don’t kill themselves.
As the demand for mental health services grows, practices are turning to outsourced telephone triage call centers to support their practices. Call center triage nurses trained in treating patients with mental illnesses are better prepared to intervene and often alleviate lengthy interruptions to the normal call flow of a practice.
Common Warning Signs Of Suicide
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.
- Looking for a way to kill oneself.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others.
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
- Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
- Displaying extreme mood swings.
What Can Triage Nurses Do to Help?
In moments of crisis, connecting with a trained triage nurse can deescalate the suicidal crisis and provide immediate help. It is never easy to talk about suicide, but it is crucial for triage nurses to be comfortable talking about suicide in the same way they talk about chest pain. How they handle each call can be life-changing for the caller.
Triage nurses need to find a connection with the patient, find the patients local emergency assistance numbers, and be ready to involve all resources available to help prevent this patient from harming him/herself.
It is essential for the triage nurse to be sympathetic, non-judgmental, and accepting. The caller has done the right thing by getting in touch with another person. No matter how negative the call seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign, a cry for help.
Triage nurses always have the caller’s safety in mind. They combine both clinical judgment and emotional connections to assess the patient’s situation to identify possible mental health issues.
Even though remote triage nurses typically can’t see their patient, they must develop that all-important trust quickly and by means other than visualization for the caller to open up and be honest with the nurse. Not all patients can accurately describe their condition, history, medical conditions, or other pertinent information. The telephone triage nurse must decipher this uncertainty.
Sometimes the patient needs emergency treatment, while other times they are reaching out for someone to talk with and work thru difficult situations like substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and loneliness.
Just talking about their problems for a length of time gives some suicidal caller’s relief from loneliness and pent up feelings, an awareness that another person cares, and a sense of someone understanding them. Also, as they talk, they get tired and their body chemistry changes. These things take the edge off their agitated state and help them get through a bad night. Suicide calls can be difficult, but with proper training, protocols, and disposition, telephone triage nurses save lives, one call at a time.
Ravi K. Raheja, MD is the CTO and medical director fo the TriageLogic Group. Founded in 2005, the TriageLogic Group is a URAC accredited, physician-lead provider of high quality telehealth services, nurse triage, triage education, and software for telephone medicine. Their comprehensive triage solution includes integrated mobile access and two-way video capability. The TriageLogic group assists their clients with value based care and serves over 7,000 physicians and covers over 18 million lives nationwide. For more information visit www.triagelogic.com. and www.continuwell.com.