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The Zero Suicide Alliance (ZSA) is marking the build up to this Friday’s World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September) by welcoming the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) recent guidance for frontline staff to help them understand how and when sharing patient information can save lives.

Following a campaign by ZSA founder member Steve Mallen, who lost his 18-year-old son Edward to suicide in 2015, the DHSC updated their Consensus Statement (2021) that gives better support in understanding how patient information should be shared in potentially life-saving situations.

Clinicians, counsellors and other frontline health and social care staff, who often feel unsure when they are able to inform relatives and loved ones about a patient’s suicidal thoughts, will now also have access to the ZSA SHARE guide and decision tool which aims to increase confidence and encourages better partnerships with agencies in the best interest of those needing support.

“I believe my son would still be alive if information about his illness and suicidal ideation had been shared,” said Mr Mallen. “There are literally thousands of families in a similar position and it’s essential we revise this key area of clinical practice within the context of the relevant rules and regulations.

“Many health professionals, through concerns about privacy, typically default to absolute patient confidentiality even in the face of severe and imminent suicidal risk.  Families and carers may then be left in the dark, unable to support their loved ones and deaths are occurring needlessly in consequence.”

Working with the DHSC, NHS England & Improvement (NHSEI), Public Health England (PHE) and the medical Royal Colleges, the ZSA has produced the SHARE resource which is specifically designed for all frontline health and social care staff. 

Together with the DHSC Consensus Statement, the SHARE resource aims to address the difficult balance between respecting patient confidentiality and reducing suicide risk, by clarifying the rules and regulations regarding consent & confidentiality and outlining best practice for clinicians who are frequently faced with complex and challenging decisions.

“We’ve made great progress in destroying the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide in recent years and, as a society, we’re now much more open about discussing these difficult topics,” added Mr Mallen. 

“We now need to give clinicians the confidence to share information where appropriate and engage with families and carers who can have a vital role to play in patient care and in averting serious incidents and tragedy.”

“The Consensus Statement recognises that, within the confines of the law, sharing information is almost always in the best interests of both service users and those who love and care for them, especially in the face of imminent risk to life.

“In the wake of serious incidents and tragedies, the inability to share information is all too often identified as a key factor in service failure. Too often the phrase, ‘if only we’d known’ reverberates through the system following terrible and avoidable events.  We hope these new resources will bring about a change in standard practice and culture within all parts of the health system.”

Joe Rafferty, chairman of the ZSA, said: “As we understand more about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of our population, now is the time to act. We understand this is a complex and sensitive issue, but each year lives that may be saved are being lost to suicide and these valuable resources aim to support clinicians in their decision making to improve safety and, above all, help prevent suicides across the country.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every suicide is a tragedy and the impact on families and communities can be devastating.

“Frontline staff can face difficult decisions balancing patient confidentiality with sharing information when they believe an individual may be at risk of suicide. This refreshed guidance will support clinicians when making these choices.

“We have worked closely with the Zero Suicide Alliance and other partners, including Royal Colleges, to ensure this guidance