Today, we’re continuing our discussion of the medical treatment of a fifteen-year-old male suicide victim who slit his wrists at school. You can find Part I of the discussion here. In this post, we’ll focus on more of the mental health aspects over the medical treatment.
Upon examining a patient, and if sexual abuse is suspected, what is the hospital protocol? How do the hospital staff work with police and the victim’s family?
If outward physical exam of the skin shows injuries concerning for sexual abuse, this can be handled several ways. In order to answer this best, I’d need to know what kind of hospital your patient/character is at in order to give advice as to how that community would likely respond but I’ll give thoughts as to how my institution would handle it—which is a large, urban pediatric medical center. A rural hospital would likely handle it much differently.
One thing I want to say is that no sexual assault exam would be done without the patient’s consent (or parental consent—a court can order if needed)—so this would not be done on an unconscious person. What you can see from the outside would be the limit. For instance, in girls and women no internal vaginal exam.
There might be an extreme outlying caveat to an internal exam if the patient were near death, concern for loss of evidence, or other victims were at risk, but it would have to be VERY PRESSING circumstance and likely the courts/law enforcement would be involved in order to move forward.
Regarding the suicide attempt, the next thing to keep in mind is that the patient’s medical needs are always addressed first. In fact, the patient must be “medically cleared” by a physician before they can participate in a mental health evaluation.
If there is a concern for sexual abuse, we would first contact social work through our hospital to develop a game plan. If a sexual assault exam needs to be done, we have health care professionals that are very experienced in doing these with kids/teens and we want the most experienced professional to do the exam and collect any evidence. Social work will do a couple of things if they think the concerns are valid. One, report it to the state (Department of Children and Family Services—something along those lines depending on the state) and second, report it to the police if they believe a crime has occurred. The incident is reported to the police jurisdiction where the crime took place and not the location of the hospital where the patient is receiving care.
As an example, if a woman is raped in Anchorage, AK, flies to Seattle and seeks treatment there, the hospital in Seattle is going to have to call Anchorage, AK police to report the crime. Local police can help determine the appropriate jurisdiction if it’s not clear.
The timing of the sexual assault is important in collecting evidence. If a person was just raped, we’d be very anxious to encourage the person to have a sexual assault exam done ASAP. If they are reporting something that happened more than three days prior (it’s 72 hr for us)—it’s not as pressing that an exam should be done immediately but plans can be made with the patient and family for follow-up exam and care.
Larger police departments typically have victim advocates that can help families through processes like this, but it is up to them to call that person in. Contrast this with a more rural hospital that may “hotline” the concern for abuse to the state, call the police, and depend on state social workers to determine the course of action.
Are patients who attempt suicide always sent to a mental health facility for treatment? I know patients speak with a crisis counselor, but what if the attempt wasn’t caused by being under the influence of drugs, or a mental illness, but due to a desperate situation (domestic violence)?
The most important determination about whether or not someone will receive psychiatric care is whether or not they are a current danger to themselves (and/or others) and how likely are they to act on it. This is determined by a mental health professional and not the medical staff. The reason for the attempt doesn’t necessarily differentiate potential lethality—it’s what the patient is thinking about in their mind and how at risk they are to act on it.
I think you’re trying to make a distinction that a desperate situation caused by domestic violence leading to a person’s suicide attempt would be seen as less lethal and it wouldn’t. If a person is trying to kill themselves because their home situation is driving them to do that—that is very significant and taken as seriously as someone who swallows pills, or slits their writs, or is having a psychiatric break. Someone attempting suicide due to domestic violence will likely have other co-existing mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
This is a very serious topic and definitely worthy of fiction to help foster discussion of suicide. Good luck with this novel.