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State of Mind: Patient privacy laws can be a barrier to researching and preventing suicide

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State of Mind: Patient privacy laws can be a barrier to researching and preventing suicide. (WWMT/File)

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rings at the Gryphon Place more than 3,000 times each year.

Gryphon is one of 163 crisis centers around the nation taking calls for the national suicide prevention lifeline. Each call is confidential, an important protection to ensure people feel safe calling for help.

That confidentiality also create challenges.

Gryphon Place coordinates the Suicide Prevention Action Network, which has a suicide death review team that examines suicides in Kalamazoo County to help inform a prevention action plan.

Maricela Alcala, the chief executive officer at Gryphon Place, said that review is based on public records, and while those records provide information, they don’t tell the full story.

“There is a challenge of getting a complete picture of those that died by suicide and what were the factors,” Alcala said.

Due to privacy and confidentiality laws, if a person calls the Gryphon Place’s suicide hotline and later dies by suicide, the center can’t provide the committee with information about what the person said or even that they called. It’s information they can’t use, even though they’re actively investigating and researching the best ways to prevent suicide deaths in the future.

Alcala said this can make piecing together the puzzle about how to prevent future suicides more challenging.

“It is a barrier within the community to be able to openly discuss challenges and opportunities when you’re only allowed to share so much information,” she said.

Similar laws apply to medical records that could help provide a fuller picture.

Under federal law, medical records remain private until 50 years after death. She says this makes it difficult for researchers trying to help prevent future suicides.

“It would absolutely open doors and avenues to be able to fill in gaps and get a better understanding of where we can help and support in community with efforts,” Alcala said.

Bills to make it easier for researchers to access nonpublic information have been filed in Lansing over the past couple of years but they haven’t made it through the Michigan Legislature.