If someone in your home were struggling with thoughts of suicide, how would you keep your medications from deadly misuse? How could your pharmacist help? Those are the kind of questions that pharmacists on the new Safer Homes Task Force are tackling. “Washington’s rate of prescription drug misuse is one of the highest in the nation. This is fertile ground,” said task force co-chair and Forefront executive director Jennifer Stuber.
The goal is to seek ways in which pharmacists can educate their customers about suicide prevention, especially around the need for safe storage of prescription medications.
The group’s launch was fantastic, said co-chair Jeff Rochon, chief executive officer of the Washington State Pharmacy Association (WSPA). “It’s a great group with a shared interest,” he said. “It falls on all of us as citizens to take every opportunity to help. Community pharmacists see patients frequently and have long-standing relationships,” making them strategic partners for recognizing risk signs and sharing information on safe storage and use.
The task force brings together pharmacists, educators, loss survivors, suicide prevention advocates, policy makers and others to carry the Safer Homes Act (HB 2793) mandate to “raise public awareness and increase suicide prevention education among new partners who are in key positions to help prevent suicide.” A parallel task force is working with the firearms community.
The Washington Poison Center gets daily calls about suicide attempts, said Marlo Murray, a pharmacist and certified specialist in poison information, who represents the Poison Center on the task force. “We frequently deal with overdoses and how to treat them, but it’s really important to include prevention,” she said. “It’s great to be involved in that aspect through the task force.”
Like Rochon and Stuber, Murray is impressed by the breadth and depth of experience on the task force. “I think there will be a lot of goodbrainstorming and ways that we can reach out and be more effective in suicide prevention. Pharmacists are there day-in and day-out. It’s a really good to utilize that face-to-face meeting…. the task force can work on ways to make it more effective,” Murray said.
Washington’s training requirements for health care providers—and its work with pharmacists and firearm retailers— make it a national leader in suicide prevention. Rochon hopes the task force can parlay some of that influence into system-wide improvements, such as including suicide prevention information on the inserts included with prescriptions. “We probably underestimate the extent of the perception that if a doctor prescribes it or if it’s sold over the counter, it’s safe. Most medications [can be dangerous] in large enough amounts,” he said.
The pharmacists of the future already are receiving some training in suicide risk awareness and response. The University of Washington has built three hours into its curriculum and Washington State University is looking at how to incorporate it more clearly. “It’s key that students get this training in as a core part of education, so that they are aware from Day One in pharmacy school of the need for education around safe storage and suicidal patients,” Rochon told the task force. “This sends a message, and is important.”
Everyone has a role in suicide prevention
Here are some things you can do now to make your home safer and reduce the risk of a prescription drug overdose.
• Ask your pharmacist if you have questions about appropriate use and storage when you pick up prescriptions. Make sure any mail-order prescriptions are on file, so there’s a record of everything you are taking.
• Be aware of suicide warning signs. If someone in your household is at risk, prevent access to medications, including over-the-counter drugs. You may need to dole out the pills yourself to make sure they are used as directed. Ask your pharmacist or a Poison Center phone counselor for advice on storage devices or for packaging alternatives, such as blister packs, that slow down access to multiple pills.
• Dispose of excess medications. Watch for take-back events or consult takebackyourmeds.org for temporary drop-off locations. Sadly, only 17 of Washington’s 39 counties currently have take-back programs. The Safer Homes Task Force and other groups are working for a statewide plan. Do NOT flush drugs down the toilet or toss them in the garbage.
• Keep phone numbers for the Poison Center (800) 222-1222 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK (8255) readily available – in your cell phone and near your landline. The number is on those lime green Mr. Yuk stickers too.