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UW-Eau Claire expert says suicide is not just a behavioral health issue

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp says an increased emphasis for all health care professionals to screen patients for suicide risk could better identify those at risk.

Anyone can become suicidal, not just patients with mental health issues, and most are looking for help, says Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire psychology professor and nationally recognized expert on self-injury and suicide during a recent presentation at Mayo Clinic Health System Northwest Wisconsin Academic Grand Rounds.

"Most people want their suffering to end, not their lives," says Muehlenkamp, who is director of UW-Eau Claire’s Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative. “They want to find a way to live but their hope is starting to fade away.”

During the Academic Grand Rounds presentation titled "Preventing Patient Suicide: A Guide for Providers," Muehlenkamp said health care professionals need foundational knowledge to detect risk factors in an effort to help prevent suicide.

The Academic Grand Rounds virtual presentation was a vehicle to showcase what is coming from the master collaborative research agreement between Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire, says Dr. Andrew Calvin, a cardiovascular medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire and Bloomer who helped coordinate the presentation.

The research agreement is intended to increase opportunities for research collaboration between the institutions, provide new learning opportunities for UW-Eau Claire students and improve the health and wellness of the community.

Muehlenkamp's message about suicide prevention meshes with Mayo Clinic Health System's overall mission to ensure patient care comes first, Calvin says.

An increased emphasis for all health care professionals to screen patients for suicide risk could better identify those at risk, Muehlenkamp says.

"The goal is to understand how severe the suicide thinking is to plan strategies to increase safety, reduce risk and promote wellness and recovery," Muehlenkamp says.

Muehlenkamp calls suicide a "significant public health concern" and described to health care professionals the prevalence of suicide risk among general medicine patients, explained screening for suicide risk and identified strategies for asking patients about suicide.

Anyone can become suicidal, not just patients with mental health issues, Muehlenkamp says. Centers for Disease Control information indicates fewer than one in five people who attempt suicide have had a behavioral health contact with medical professionals in the previous year.

"It's not just a behavioral health issue," Muehlenkamp says. "Suicide affects everyone."

Muehlenkamp currently is involved in two research projects with Mayo Clinic Health System: A Blugold Fellowship initiative that includes a student survey of emergency department nursing staffs' perception of their knowledge and confidence in their ability to screen and interact with suicidal patients; and a study with Mayo Clinic Health System's psychiatric department of adult patients to better understand daily factors that could lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

"What's nice about this collaboration is we've got a wealth of knowledge from these two major institutions — UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic — and to be able to share that expertise across our institutions can have a big impact on education as well as care delivery," Muehlenkamp says. "The sharing of knowledge and expertise is very valuable."

The Academic Grand Rounds presentation was significant for multiple reasons, says Dr. Michael Carney, UW-Eau Claire's associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

"She is a nationally respected expert in recognizing suicidal tendencies and in suicide prevention strategies, so her talk was especially important and timely given our ongoing mental health concerns in the region, especially given the impacts of the pandemic, including the disparate impacts on our most vulnerable populations,” Carney says.

"Our hopes for the future of the collaboration are to highlight the work of a UW-Eau Claire faculty member each semester during Grand Rounds, to use these presentations to provide education for Mayo Clinic Health System physicians and clinicians, and to foster fruitful research collaborations between our two institutions."

Calvin concurred, adding, "I received incredibly positive feedback that was appreciative of her education and efforts to improve the care of patients," Calvin says of Muehlenkamp's presentation.

Muehlenkamp was among the first UW-Eau Claire faculty members to take part in the Mayo Clinic Health System's Academic Grand Rounds series, presentations that provide continuing education opportunities for the system's medical professionals. Dr. Bradley Carter, assistant professor of biology and an expert in developmental neuroscience, presented on his work at Academic Grand Rounds in 2019.