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The Zero Suicide Policy challenges – Dr David Fearnley

The Medical Director at Merseycare NHS Foundation Trust looks at the Zero Suicide Policy introduced at the Trust in 2015 and the impact that deaths from suicide are having:

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

Yet prevention remains difficult – so many times people will say that it was a complete surprise when someone they knew died by suicide.

The reluctance to talk about our emotional life is perhaps one of the toughest issues for men to tackle – how do we cope if we become aware of thoughts of suicide in others and perhaps even ourselves?

The stigma is profound. We still use phrases such as ‘committed suicide’, reminding us of the days when suicide was a crime that people ‘committed’.

The concept of ‘zero suicide’ grew out of frustration about the existing approaches to suicide prevention in the US. It challenges to some extent the prevailing wisdom that suicide is inevitable for some people when they hit rock bottom.

The idea of ‘zero suicide’ provokes debate about how much more we might be able to do in the future to avoid such tragedies. It is very hard to look back and think that perhaps something was missed, and the ‘zero suicide’ approach recognises up front that such ambition has no place at all for blame.

However, the evidence base for achieving ‘zero suicide’ is limited. That is why it is so important to measure any ‘zero suicide’ initiative, any such innovation, to quickly identify whether or not it helps prevent suicide.

Perhaps the best known example of a ‘zero suicide’ programme is that of the Henry Ford Hospital System, Detroit. They pioneered a perfect depression care pathway, with zero suicide as the key outcome measure. Their data show a dramatic reduction in suicide over a ten year period, eventually reaching zero.

Dr Ed Coffey led this work and visited Mersey Care in 2013 and 2014 to share the insights and lessons learned from the programme. This was an inspirational moment for Mersey Care, leading to a strong desire to emulate the ambition and success of the Detroit pioneers.

Mersey Care’s Board approved a Zero Suicide Policy in 2015, the first mental health trust to state such ambition. The Board would not accept in principle that suicide was inevitable or unavoidable for anyone within its care. On the contrary, it recognised that only by learning from every tragedy, the likelihood of further suicide would be reduced.

It created a Zero Suicide Programme Board, chaired by the Medical Director, and established a plan focused on using proven quality improvement techniques, co-production with experts by experience, universal staff training, psychologically informed safety planning, support for those affected following a death, and high quality evaluation by academics. Further innovation is being developed, using a smartphone app to improve outcomes.

The ‘zero suicide’ policy is aligned to the Cheshire and Merseyside Suicide Prevention Network ‘NO MORE’ suicide prevention strategy – aiming for zero as the only acceptable outcome. This integration of partners is essential to create communities that are able to promote well-being and a greater awareness of mental health distress and ill health.

The Mersey Care ‘zero suicide’ programme uses a scientific model – the evaluation is being conducted openly and our results will be published for others to scrutinise and test.

We hope others will join us and learn from our approach.

Dr David Fearnley is Associate National Clinical Director for Secure Mental Health for NHS England.

He was appointed as a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Ashworth Hospital in 2001, specialising in high secure psychiatry.

He has been the Medical Director for Mersey Care NHS Trust since 2005 and has a strong interest in quality improvement and medical leadership. David has also undertaken executive responsibilities for a wide range of local and secure services, developing new and affordable models of care.

He was the Inaugural Royal College of Psychiatrists ‘Psychiatrist of the Year’ (2009) and the Healthcare Financial Management Association ‘Working with finance – Clinician of the Year’ (2013).

David has also been seconded since May 2015 as the Medical Director of Calderstones Partnerships NHS FT, leading the development of new models of secure learning disability and autism services at a time of significant change.

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