Sanford Health creates task force to help prevent suicide

Calls to suicide help lines have grown 300% nationwide during COVID-19 pandemic

Sanford Health creates task force to help prevent suicide

In 2018, nearly 50,000 Americans died by suicide and 1.4 million people attempted suicide worldwide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide and mental health concerns have been a problem in rural areas for years, says Dr. Stephen Wonderlich, vice president of research at Sanford Health in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

“Between 1999-2016, North Dakota had a 57% increase in completed suicides. That’s the most in the nation,” he said.

Find a provider: Behavioral health care at Sanford

This year, mental health providers have reported vast increases in suicide calls stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some people have been laid off, and physical distancing measures increase social isolation. This has been linked to some increased mental health problems. Suicide calls to U.S. help lines have jumped 300%,” said Dr. Katie Gordon, a Sanford Health women’s health psychologist in Fargo, North Dakota.

Addressing a need

In an attempt to prevent suicides and shine a brighter light on the importance of mental health, Sanford Health created a suicide task force.

“Our goal is to make sure that as an organization, we have the necessary tools and training to ensure that individuals who are at risk of suicide remain safe, and receive the care they deserve here at Sanford,” said Fargo, North Dakota lead RN clinical strategist Jill Swenson.

Swenson says the 16-member group was originally formed in January of 2020. The group was composed of representatives from different locations in Sanford’s footprint. They’d meet and discuss strategies to help prevent suicide attempts and deaths at Sanford.

Listen now: Podcast: Suicide prevention and awareness

“It’s a diverse group. We have executive sponsors, project leadership, clinical expertise, clinicians, integrated health therapists, and inpatient behavioral health unit leaders and managers to help guide this work,” said Swenson.

“We want to create a culture where it’s okay to talk about suicide, we want safety to be paramount in the care that we’re giving to our patients,” she added.

Swenson says that culture is now more important than ever. Not only for the patients, but also the providers.

“40.9% of U.S. adults have experienced at least one mental health or behavioral health symptom within the past year. We also see it in essential workers, and we’re all essential workers at Sanford. Some of those statistics are saying 22% of essential workers have seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. We knew it was time.”


Swenson says the task force is broken up into four different subcommittees.

One subcommittee, caring contacts, will focus on monitoring how a patient is doing during their visits and appointments. This subcommittee can help patients with suicidal thoughts, ideation attempts, and those experiencing behavioral health symptoms of depression.

“We will implement strategies to do caring contacts for them in-between their clinic visits and post hospital.¬†There’s evidence behind reaching out to someone and asking how they’re doing,” said Swenson.

Related: How to ask if someone might be thinking about suicide

Another subcommittee is care coordination.

“Targeting behavioral health interventions, post hospital discharge, making sure that we have what those patients need to get in for their follow up appointments. So, screening those individuals for transportation needs, or daycare, or whatever barriers they may be finding,” Swenson added.

A third subcommittee will focus on safety planning for patients experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“It’s been known that if patients collaborate with you and create a safety plan to identify those risks for suicide, those are very powerful interventions to have with patients. So, looking at safety planning with our teams and making sure we have the education and tools we need.”

The final subcommittee is evidence-based treatment.

“This is where our clinicians, as part of the expertise panel on this, look into some evidence-based treatments for treating suicide patients,” says Swenson.

Training staff

“We work to support the Sanford provider, clinician, and front-line staff. Our goal is to provide them with the tools necessary to appropriately treat their patients,” Swenson said.

The long term goal of the task force? Improve Sanford Health’s capacity to identify and effectively intervene with people at risk for suicide.

“Every day if we can save lives, that’s our goal and that’s what we want to do.”

Learn more

Posted In Behavioral Health, Community, COVID-19