Rachel Bauer, PharmD, BCPS, BCPP
Clinical Pharmacist
Salt Lake City, UT

Dr. Bauer graduated from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) College of Pharmacy and completed the PGY1 managed care residency with UTHSC College of Pharmacy and Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. She then completed her PGY2 in psychiatry at University of North Carolina Medical Center. She currently works as an inpatient psychiatric pharmacist and in mental health transitions of care pharmacy at the George E. Wahlen VAMC in Salt Lake City. She has served on the hospital’s suicide prevention oversight committee (SPOC) since 2019 and was appointed chair by the Department of Mental Health for 2020. She loves Mexican food, her kitties Tony and Frodo, mountains, weightlifting, her backyard garden, and her newly adopted Frenchie named Memphis.

I initially planned on writing a really professional review of my tips for new practitioners who may be interested in suicide prevention as a subspecialty. In thinking a little more about what I wish I knew about suicide prevention, though, I realized that the subject is a lot deeper than I had initially given it space to be. I think those depths are really important to discuss for new practitioners. So consider this your trigger warning, we’re gonna get personal.

Assessment of Suicidal Ideation

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 10-34 in the United States and the 10th leading cause overall1. As mental healthcare providers, it is our responsibility to know how to triage, assess and respond to suicidal ideation. I won’t provide complete instructions for that in this article because there are almost certainly protocols or policies specific to where you work. It’s important to find and review those, so you know what your baseline expectations are. However, most professionally accepted suicide assessment techniques involve directly asking patients about thoughts of suicide. Effectively discussing acute suicidal thoughts with patients is a specific skill in which many pharmacists have not received formal training. If you’re not accustomed to these conversations, it’s likely going to require a decent amount of learning and practice to become comfortable with it, and that’s okay. Start with the first step.

Thoughts of suicide are quite possibly the most personal thing you could ever ask another human to talk about. It can feel intrusive for both the patient and the provider. Creating an environment where a patient feels comfortable enough to share this most desperate, existential secret is certainly a daunting task for a new provider. US Department of Veterans Affairs and Psych/Armor® developed a brief training video that can be found on YouTube; it is a great introduction to how to approach these questions. It can be found at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Vg-xM9L7Q

There are unlimited resources for those who wish to gain deeper knowledge of assessment, statistics, clinical research, training, patient supports, etc, pertaining to suicide prevention. It can quickly become overwhelming just to decide where to begin. Here are some great starting points for the basics:

Limiting Access to High-Risk Medications

In professional pharmacy training, treating suicidal ideation is often only discussed in the context of other mental health diagnoses: treat the underlying disease, and you’ll treat the suicidal ideation. While that is partially true, there are universal approaches to reducing risk for suicide that can be easily adopted well within the pharmacy scope of practice.

One of the most evidence-based components to effective suicide prevention is limiting access to lethal means.2,3,4 Poisonings represent 13% of suicide deaths overall and 30% of the suicide deaths among women.1 Most medical professionals are likely acutely familiar with the dangers of opioid medications, but it may be surprising how many top 200 medications are commonly associated with overdose deaths in the US due to a low LD50. Frequency of use of these medications has the potential to create a false sense of safety for both patients and prescribers. Pharmacists are specially trained in toxicities of medications and can easily suggest lower-risk, evidence-based alternatives. Though not specific to suicide, the Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS) is a good resource for analysis of relative contribution to fatality for overdoses.5 This can be a helpful guide as to what medications to watch out for. By critically reviewing medication lists with suicide risk reduction in mind, pharmacists can effectively reduce access to lethal means by guiding prescribing.

As suicide attempts are often impulsive with very little planning,6 many people utilize methods that are easily accessible to them in the moment.2 Safe medication use, storage, and disposal of stockpiles can improve overall safety for all who live the home. While it is preferable to avoid high-risk medication all together, dispensing short supplies can be a helpful tool for or limiting access to large amounts of medication. Safes or lock boxes can be protective if another person (not at acutely high risk for suicide) holds the keys (or re-sets the combination, etc) and dispenses medication doses when due. Bubble/blister packs are often touted as an effective method. Certainly they’ve been shown to be helpful in places like the UK, where a reduction in suicide deaths was observed after legislation was passed requiring blister packaging for all acetaminophen products.7 It should be noted that in addition to blister packaging, the total number of pills allowed per package was also reduced by roughly half, so blister packs without a concomitant reduction in the number of pills dispensed may have a less robust protective effect. A survey of suicide survivors observed that almost half contemplated for less than 10 minutes before taking action,6 so it is reasonable to consider a delay in access to potentially dangerous amounts of medications as a benefit if other safety are not available.

Patient Education

Patient education can also yield positive results. People don’t always know that medications for depression, anxiety, and PTSD often take several weeks to reach full efficacy or that these medications were studied in combination with non-pharmacologic treatments like psychotherapy. Setting realistic initial expectations for medications and their role in treatment can help prevent patients from becoming more discouraged (or even hopeless) when they don’t immediately feel better. It can also help them understand the importance of their whole treatment plan (in addition to taking medications) and help them prepare for responding to bad days. Parents are often aware of the black box warning for increased suicidality for teens and young adults with antidepressants. Less common knowledge is that risk of suicide attempt in the antidepressant group was 1/3 that of the untreated group, and the same data set showed antidepressants to be protective.8 These simple messages can remove knowledge barriers to effective treatment.

For patients at risk for suicide who also have access to opioids (either prescribed to them or otherwise), naloxone kits are also a meaningful suicide safety intervention in the same way they are helpful for accidental overdose. Offer (with the patient’s permission) to include patients’ family, friends, or roommates in naloxone education in the event the patient cannot assist themselves. This is also a reason to offer naloxone kits to people who don’t use or abuse opioids; they may have a friend or loved one at risk for intentional overdose.


The deeper dive I mentioned in the introduction is because, unfortunately, pharmacists ourselves are not immune. Risk factors for suicide are all too common for pharmacists,9 particularly for new practitioners. For my personal experience, I thought about dying when I was 6 months out of residency. I had joyously spent my last penny move across the country for what I thought was going to be my dream job. It didn’t go as planned. I’d left my family and friends behind. I felt the full weight of my student loans and realized their crippling impact on my financial future. The “dream job” wasn’t a good fit for me or my values. I felt intimidated, invalidated, unsupported, isolated, and my career was constantly being threatened. I tried to advocate for myself, but seemed like my concerns weren’t taken seriously by my leadership; I was afraid to push too hard or ask for too much lest I be perceived as “unprofessional” or “difficult”. There weren’t any other jobs available nearby, and I had no money to move again. I didn’t have an option but to stay in this horrible situation that only seemed to be getting worse. It seemed like all my accomplishments, awards, degrees, sacrifices since the day I started pharmacy school had been nothing but one big, expensive mistake. Compound that with multiple losses in my personal life, and I felt like an utter failure in every way.

I only talk about my experience to draw attention to some traps that people can fall into when working in mental health. One is that we cognitively understand mental illness; that can lead us to think that translates to insight, but it doesn’t always. Another is that the people who provide local mental healthcare are your colleagues. These professional connections can limit access to mental healthcare for providers. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Almost 80% of all antidepressants are prescribed by primary care providers (PCPs).10 My PCP was more than competent and caring. She created an environment that I felt comfortable and safe in. The HR department at my job regularly conducted “Month-6 Stay Interviews” to reduce employee turnover. I’d delayed mine because I was afraid of what would happen. When I finally agreed to the interview, I was honest. HR advised to utilize the employee assistance program (EAP), and that gave me an opportunity to get counseling. EAP would have continued to help me, but another job in a different healthcare system opened a couple of months later. My new position has a healthy, supportive work environment and actually is my dream job. I realize now that a lot of what I went through was because I was a new practitioner and didn’t have much experience navigating difficult workplaces, setting professional boundaries, or advocating for myself. This is a real-life example of how implementing protective systems for employees and accessing them can work. It’s also hopefully some validation for new practitioners who are having a rough time. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve had very similar experiences. You’re not alone.

Grieving Loss

Another reason I tell my story is because someone I know is no longer here to tell theirs. Suicide is a preventable cause of death, but not 100% of the time. When you lose a colleague and a friend to suicide, there are so many things you wish you’d known. You feel like you should have been able to use your mental health clairvoyance to recognize or prevent it somehow. So many things you wish they’d known, too. How every single one of us would have dropped absolutely everything to be there for them. How devastated we’d all be to lose them. You wish they’d known how unique, valuable, and loved they were beyond their contributions, beyond the job or titles, loan payments or board certifications. Even with all the things we didn’t and still don’t know; just for who they were. It rips your heart out. It creates a different sense of failure; a much deeper, more real one. It’s difficult to process when you’re still trying to provide mental healthcare for your patients. Many of the resources previously mentioned also offer information about obtaining assistance with grief and loss.

The reality is that nobody has all the right answers. Suicide is complex, and the response to it is everchanging. That means we have to keep learning. Keep going.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7, free and confidential at 800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line is available anywhere in the USA, 24/7. Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor.


  1. “Suicide” National Institute of Mental Health website, National Institute of Health/US Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide. Date of access 3/19/22.
  2. Yip PSF, Yousuf S, Chang S, Caine E, W CW Y (2012). Means restriction for suicide prevention. Lancet, June 23; 379(9834): 2393–2399.
  3. Mann et al (2005) Suicide prevention strategies: a systematic review. JAMA, 294(16): 2064-74.
  4. National suicide prevention strategies: progress, examples and indicators. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
  5. Gummin et al (2020) 2019 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 37th Annual Report. Clinical Toxicity,58(12) 1360-1541.
  6. Deisenhammer EA, Ing CM, Strauss R, Kemmler G, Hinterhuber H, and Weiss EM (2009). The duration of the suicidal process: how much time is left for intervention between consideration and accomplishment of a suicide attempt? J Clin Psychiatry, 70(1): 19-24.
  7. Hawton K et al. (2004) UK legislation on analgesic packs: before and after study of long term effect on poisonings. BMJ, 329(7474): 1076.
  8. Jurdi RK, Swann A, and Mathew SJ (2015). Psychopharmacological agents and suicide risk reduction: ketamine and other approaches. Curr Psychiatry Rep, 17(81): 1-10.
  9. Chisholm-Burns MA (2019). Building resilience to combat stress, burnout, and suicidal ideation among pharmacists. Am J Health Syst Pharm, 76(18): 1364-67.
  10. Barkil-Oteo A (2013) Collaborative care for depression in primary care: how psychiatry could “troubleshoot” current treatments and practices. Yale J Biol Med, 86: 139-46.