Strategies to Care for Patients Being Treated in the Emergency Department After Self-harm: Perspectives of Frontline Staff

J Emerg Nurs. 2021 May;47(3):426-436.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.jen.2020.12.016. Epub 2021 Feb 17.


Introduction: Every year, approximately 500 000 patients in the United States present to emergency departments for treatment after an episode of self-harm. Evidence-based practices such as designing safer ED environments, safety planning, and discharge planning are effective for improving the care of these patients but are not always implemented with fidelity because of resource constraints. The aim of this study was to provide insight into how ED staff innovate processes of care and services by leveraging what is available on-site or in their communities.

Methods: A total of 34 semi-structured qualitative phone interviews were conducted with 12 nursing directors, 11 medical directors, and 11 social workers from 17 emergency departments. Respondents comprised a purposive stratified sample recruited from a large national survey in the US. Interview transcripts were coded and analyzed using a directed content analysis approach to identify categories of strategies used by ED staff to care for patients being treated after self-harm.

Results: Although respondents characterized the emergency department as an environment that was not well-suited to meet patient mental health needs, they nevertheless described 4 categories of strategies to improve the care of patients seen in the emergency department after an episode of self-harm. These included: adapting the ED environment, improving efficiencies to provide mental health care, supporting the staff who provide direct care for patients, and leveraging community resources to improve access to mental health resources postdischarge.

Discussion: Despite significant challenges in meeting the mental health needs of patients treated in the emergency department after self-harm, the staff identified opportunities to provide mental health care and services within the emergency department and leverage community resources to support patients after discharge.

Keywords: Emergency service; Evidence-based practice; Hospital; Mental health; Self-injurious Behavior.

MeSH terms

  • Aftercare*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Patient Discharge
  • Self-Injurious Behavior* / therapy
  • United States