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Peer specialists can prevent suicides

October 1, 2010
by Tony Salvatore, MA
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Properly trained peers play a vital role in regional suicide prevention effort
  • Basic concepts of suicide prevention and suicide loss;

  • Knowing when to contact a crisis center or 9-1-1;

  • Applying recovery concepts to coping after an attempt, suicide loss, or suicidal behavior;

  • Developing “personal safety plans” for avoiding suicidal behavior;

  • Understanding myths and stigma associated with suicide;

  • Appreciating cultural/ethnic perspectives on suicide and methods of dealing with suicide loss;

  • Facilitating peer-led suicide prevention/postvention groups; and

  • Familiarity with appropriate community resources.

As peer-specialist learning makes clear the value of this role, it must also explain its boundaries and limitations relative to other roles. Specifically, it must clarify the circumstances when a potentially suicidal consumer requires the support of clinical professionals who offer crisis intervention, risk assessment, and therapy. While peer specialists can support consumers who are working with specialists like these, they must be careful to not take on any of these more specialized roles.

A provider's experience

In 2008, Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc. added suicide prevention to the duties of two part-time peer specialists. The hospital had initiated a suicide prevention program for patients, families, and community members and sought to strengthen its efforts for current patients and those recently discharged.8 To date, our peer specialists have:

  • Facilitated a weekly inpatient suicide prevention support group;

  • Provided one-to-one suicide prevention counseling to inpatients;

  • Led regional suicide prevention training for other peer specialists and workshops at statewide consumer conferences;

  • Participated in suicide prevention training for providers and police officers; and

  • Developed a self-help, personal suicide prevention plan for consumers.

The peer specialists use their peer support and recovery training that they brought with them to the hospital, the suicide prevention education provided by the hospital, and their willingness to share their own past experiences with suicide to deliver an effective suicide prevention program. 9


Tony Salvatore, MA, is the suicide prevention specialist for Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc., a non-profit acute psychiatric hospital and crisis intervention service in Norristown, Pa. E-mail Tony at


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  2. Ruter T and Davis M.“ Suicide Prevention Efforts for Individuals with Serious Mental Illness: Roles for the State Mental Health Authority.” Alexandria VA:National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, 2008.
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  6. Public Health Service “ National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action.” Rockville MD:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001; 53.
  7. Litts D.“ First National Conference for Survivors of Suicide Attempts-Summary of Workgroup Reports.” New York NY:Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2008.
  8. “Give patients crisis information before discharge to lower risk.” Inside the Joint Commission. October 8, 2007; 4-6.
  9. Salvatore T.“ Suicide Prevention for Peer Specialists.” Norristown PA:Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc.; 2009.

Behavioral Healthcare 2010 October;30(9):31-32