SuicidologistBarbara Stanley

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Born in New Jersey, Stanley studied clinical psychology, getting her Ph.D at New York University. She spent most of her career as a Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University. “My professional life has been devoted to understanding and preventing suicide and treating suicidal patients,” she said — she published more than 200 papers in the field. She not only helped individual suicidal people live, but she did significant research to help other doctors help their own patients, especially during in-the-moment crisis situations.

“Every time we get on a plane, we hear about what to do when the cabin pressure drops,” she explained. “You do this, this, and this — because we don’t think clearly in an emergency. When we are suicidal, it’s an emergency, and we want somebody to just have a plan to get them through the crisis.” What doctors were using previously was a “contract” where the patient promised not to kill themselves. That rarely worked, so with Dr. Gregory Brown from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (and Director of the Penn Center for the Prevention of Suicide), they developed something better: the Stanley-Brown Safety Planning Intervention. Using that methodology, a doctor, counselor, or social worker helps the patient to develop a plan they can stick with for what to do in a crisis, sort of like what to do in an airline emergency.

Stanley’s professional portrait, c2000.

Stanley and Brown figured that the document would help for the moment as they waited for long-term therapy to kick in, but patients liked it so much it became clear that it was a primary resource for them. “There is something about this kind of intervention,” she said, “that helps them get through that period of time.” Starting in 2008, she and Brown did studies comparing groups of patients who were simply stabilized in an emergency room and sent home, and patients who were helped to create a Safety Plan. They found that “Over two-thirds of the people had used their safety plan at least once,” she said. “So it was a living, breathing document for them.” Even better, it reduced suicides by a startling 45 percent.

“Very brief and simple strategies with someone in crisis can reduce the likelihood that they try to kill themselves by nearly 50 percent. Think about that for a minute,” urges Dr. Craig Bryan of the Ohio State University College of Medicine (and director of its Suicide Prevention Program). “That’s a stunning finding. We can easily transport these simple strategies to a lot of settings and potentially move the needle on suicide prevention.” The Safety Plan has been refined in the years since, and has been widely adopted by psychologists — and emergency rooms. Stanley loved hearing from doctors around the world who had used the tool. “The work was so fulfilling to her,” said her daughter, Melissa Morris, “both on a personal level and on a larger level, to have been of service.” Dr. Barbara Hrevnack Stanley died in hospice care in New Jersey on January 25, from ovarian cancer. She was 73.

Further Info: For professionals who want to be trained in Stanley-Brown Planning Intervention, visit If you need help yourself, call the hotline for your area and tell them you need a Safety Plan, pointing them to that site if necessary.

From This is True for 29 January 2023