Patients who have a history of mental illness or depression are at a great risk for being deemed suicidal patients in nursing homes. Research studies indicate that those patients who commit suicide typically have an illness like depression, and they commit suicide within less than six months of living in a nursing home. Suicide attempts usually involve behaviors like drowning, hanging or medication overdoses. Other research studies of long-term care patients have shown that 12 to 50 percent of nursing home patients suffer from depression at any given time. In some states, the suicide rate can be as much as 14 individuals for every 100,000 patients. Nursing home workers need to pay special attention to this group of patients and monitor any suicidal tendencies that they may exhibit.
The Geriatric Medicine and Medical Direction Journal states that suicide in long-term care patients is most often associated with depression. Suicide rates in these patients are also not decreasing every year. The level of depression that a long-term care patient can experience ranges from minor depression to major depression. Depression can also develop in patients who were previously happy individuals due to the conditions of the nursing home or other institutional environment.
Causes of Suicide in Nursing Home Patients
It is important for nursing homes to identify conditions that may cause residents to develop depression. Since depression is the leading cause of suicide in nursing home patients, it is important to take any precautions possible to prevent this illness from developing in nursing home patients. Nursing home patients can develop depression when they lose personal autonomy or do not have social interaction with other people on a regular basis. They may suffer from fatigue or sleep problems that nursing home workers fail to recognize. Some patients even suffer from severe anxiety after entering a long-term care facility due to concerns over their financial ability to pay for the care services. These patients can also be at risk for having suicidal thoughts and need to receive the attention of nursing home workers.
Protocols to Assess At-Risk Seniors in Nursing Homes
Nursing homes have a legal duty to care for those patients who are at risk for committing suicide in the future. They need to take certain protocols to ensure that they take every measure to prevent suicide in these patients. Here are some of the ways in which nursing homes may be liable when a patient does commit suicide:
- Failure to create a care plan for the at-risk patient
- Failure to abide by the care plan for the at-risk patient
- Failure to assess the mental health of the patient upon his or her admission into the facility
- Failure to monitor patients with a history of depression or who have expressed suicidal ideations
- Failure to discuss major changes in the patient’s mental health with a family doctor, family members or a legal guardian
When nursing home administrators and workers fail to take these protocols, they may be cited for neglect. Neglect refers to a nursing home’s failure to provide the goods and services required to avoid the physical harm or mental suffering of a patient. Nursing home workers must receive training so that they can notice the signs of depression in patients. A nursing home may even wish to implement a standardized program in which all patients are screened for depression after being admitted to a nursing home for two weeks. In addition, a nursing home can also screen all nursing home residents for depression every six months.
Duty to Monitor Nursing Home Patients with Suicidal Ideations
Those patients who have expressed an intention to take their own lives should immediately be referred to a therapist or other mental health professional. These patients need outside help to cope with their suicidal thoughts and improve their mental health. Even if patients do not express suicidal ideations, there may be other signs that create a reasonable suspicion that the individual will take his or her life. Nursing home workers also have a legal duty to transfer this individual to the nearest emergency room or psychiatric facility.
If a patient has already taken steps toward taking his or her life, then nursing home workers must notify the police. The staff should not be responsible for attempting to disarm the individual. The individual may pose a threat to his or her own safety as well as the safety of others. Police members are trained to deal with people who express suicidal ideations.
Family members who have lost a nursing home patient due to suicide may have a legal claim against nursing home administrators or workers. These individuals may be liable for failing to take steps to protect the at-risk patient, and nursing home lawyers can help file a lawsuit for family members.
For additional information on nursing home safety and suicide prevention:
- The New Old Age Blog, New York Times: http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/high-suicide-rates-among-the-elderly/?_r=0
- CDC, Suicide Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/
- Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers, Nursing Home Negligence Attorneys: http://www.rosenfeldinjurylawyers.com/practice/nursing-home-injuries/
- Next Avenue, Exploding Rate of Boomer Suicide: http://www.nextavenue.org/blog/what-does-exploding-rate-boomer-suicide-say-about-us
Jonathan Rosenfeld is a personal injury and medical malpractice attorney in Chicago and regularly handles cases involving nursing home neglect.