Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 36930620
Link to DOI – e028171110.1371/journal.pone.0281711
PLoS One 2023 ; 18(3): e0281711
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic led to the rapid transition of many research studies from in-person to telephone follow-up globally. For mental health research in low-income settings, tele-follow-up raises unique safety concerns due to the potential of identifying suicide risk in participants who cannot be immediately referred to in-person care. We developed and iteratively adapted a telephone-delivered protocol designed to follow a positive suicide risk assessment (SRA) screening. We describe the development and implementation of this SRA protocol during follow-up of a cohort of adults with depression in Malawi enrolled in the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Partnership for Mental Health Capacity Building (SHARP) randomized control trial during the COVID-19 era. We assess protocol feasibility and performance, describe challenges and lessons learned during protocol development, and discuss how this protocol may function as a model for use in other settings. Transition from in-person to telephone SRAs was feasible and identified participants with suicidal ideation (SI). Follow-up protocol monitoring indicated a 100% resolution rate of SI in cases following the SRA during this period, indicating that this was an effective strategy for monitoring SI virtually. Over 2% of participants monitored by phone screened positive for SI in the first six months of protocol implementation. Most were passive risk (73%). There were no suicides or suicide attempts during the study period. Barriers to implementation included use of a contact person for participants without personal phones, intermittent network problems, and pre-paid phone plans delaying follow-up. Delays in follow-up due to challenges with reaching contact persons, intermittent network problems, and pre-paid phone plans should be considered in future adaptations. Future directions include validation studies for use of this protocol in its existing context. This protocol was successful at identifying suicide risk levels and providing research assistants and participants with structured follow-up and referral plans. The protocol can serve as a model for virtual SRA development and is currently being adapted for use in other contexts.