Aiming to Reduce Suicide By 20%, Aetna Creates New Specialty Provider Network

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death nationwide, with an estimated 90% percent of occurences related to potentially treatable mental health conditions. One of the nation’s leading health insurers is trying to tackle the problem head on through a partnership with an online mental health education platform.

Aetna, a division of CVS Health (NYSE: CVS), has teamed up with Nashville, Tennessee-based PsychHub to develop a speciality provider network focused on suicide awareness and prevention. About 283,000 of the insurer’s in-network behavioral health and employee assistance program providers can participate.

The goal of the free program is to arm providers with the instruction, tools and resources they need to identify and treat patients at risk of suicide.


“This opportunity [is] for any of our providers who are interested in that deeper learning [and] understanding [of suicide] — because they either are treating patients who have suicide ideation, or they want to be treating patients that are in that situation,” Cara McNulty, Aetna’s president of behavioral health and employee assitance programs, told Behavioral Health Business.

The network is part of Aetna’s goal to reduce suicide attempts by 20% among its members by 2025. Although suicide declined year-over-year in 2020, it has remained the nation’s 10th-leading cause of death (not including COVID-19) since 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And despite last year’s dip, suicide rates rose more than 30% between 1999 to 2019. Additionally, the pandemic has worsened the nation’s behavioral health and caused a rise in suicidal ideation among children and teenagers.


“We looked at the data, we looked at what was happening with the pandemic and we looked at suicide as being a preventable public health issue,” McNulty said. “We have already been doing work around suicide prevention and intervention, but we decided we were going to take a bold stand.”

That stand involves collaborating with researchers from higher education institutions like Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard to develop a suicide prevention curriculum, which is accessible to Aetna’s providers through PsychHub’s platform.

Backed by the venture capital fund Frist Cressey Ventures, PsychHub has been working with various payers to create educational behavioral health content for plan members since its inception in 2018. Its educational programming includes videos, games, animations and slides.

Originally, Aetna connected with PsychHub to discuss similar services for its beneficiaries. Eventually, stakeholders realized the mental health education platform could also help expand upon Aetna’s existing suicide prevention work, which includes resources such as suicide prevention screening and safety planning.

“[There] was a lot of conversation with Aetna early on about ways that we could go after this together, what it could look like [and] how we could do it,” PsychHub CEO Marjorie Morrison told BHB. “We … really co-developed it together [in] a … creative and innovative way. They gave us a lot of creative bandwidth to try some different things.”

Morrison — who co-founded PsychHub alongside former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy — said Aetna’s goal to reduce suicide by 20% corresponds with her company’s own ambitions.

“We’re measuring our success [by] how many people we are getting through the platform, getting through the certification [or] … engaging with the content on an ongoing basis,” Morrison said. “[We’re doing that] with an overall goal of reducing suicide at the same rate as [Aetna].”

How it works

Through the program, Aetna’s in-network providers take five courses — totaling 15 hours of learning — on PsychHub’s platform. Upon completion, practitioners are required to submit a case study based on what they have learned and how they will use it in real life sessions with suicidal patients. Afterwards, providers receive a credential that gives them access to suicide-related PsychHub resources and tools.

“The course is designed to prioritize key evidence-based practices, and it identifies the latest tools and research that practitioners can use with their clients in specific situations,” McNulty said.

In creating the suicide prevention network, McNulty said that Aetna consulted with employer health plan sponsors who had voiced concerns about rising national rates of suicide and had questioned what could be done to get their workers more help.

Behavioral health conditions like depression — which can lead to suicidal ideation — have been linked to employee absenteeism and decreased job productivity. Additionally, it has been estimated that depression causes employers to lose 200 million work days annually, costing them up to $44 billion.

“With that overall increase in suicide, we … were hearing those concerns from the members and plan sponsors we serve,” McNulty said. “Plan sponsors want to do what they can to support their employees, and no one wants to have a loss of life.”

Aetna members who receive behavioral health services through in-network providers can be routed into the specialty program, if therapists feel those individuals need a higher level of care for behavioral issues. The benefit to providers, MuNutly said, is that it better prepares them in the future to work with suicidal patients.

“We have a lot of opportunities to meet people earlier and engage [them] in a different, more unique way [to] ensure that [they] get the support and care they need,” she said.

In the near term, McNulty said that Aetna hopes the network will be able to reduce the rate of suicide among its members by 5% by the end of this year. She is confident that the insurer will not only be able to meet that goal, but also hit its primary goal of a 20% reduction by 2025.

“To meet a goal of [suicide] reduction by 20% by 2025, you have to have a multi-pronged approach,” she said. “The addition of this unique network — and upskilling our providers — is one more lever we’re pulling to ensure that we get to that goal.”

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