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Suicide Screening and Referral

3 Contact Hours
Not approved for Washington State requirements.
This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), Midwife (MW), Nursing Student, Occupational Therapist (OT), Occupational Therapist Assistant (OTA), Other, Physical Therapist (PT), Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA), Registered Nurse (RN), Respiratory Therapist (RT)
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Nationally Accredited

CEUFast, Inc. is accredited as a provider of nursing continuing professional development by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. ANCC Provider number #P0274.

FPTA Approval: CE22-650097. Accreditation of this course does not necessarily imply the FPTA supports the views of the presenter or the sponsors.

92% of participants will know how to screen, assess, and refer patients with suicidal thoughts, plans, and behaviors.


After completing the course, the learner will be able to:

  1. Relate terms that describe suicidal thinking and behavior.
  2. Define both suicide risk factors and protective factors.
  3. Differentiate suicide risk screening and assessments.
  4. Outline when and how to screen children and adults for suicide risk.
  5. Analyze the components of a comprehensive suicide assessment.
  6. Determine how to appropriately use the information gathered from suicide risk screening and assessments.
  7. Choose the appropriate referral for those at risk for suicide.
  8. Examine the importance of continuity of care when making referrals.
  9. Explain best practices for connecting a patient to a referral.
CEUFast Inc. and the course planners for this educational activity do not have any relevant financial relationship(s) to disclose with ineligible companies whose primary business is producing, marketing, selling, re-selling, or distributing healthcare products used by or on patients.

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To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Melissa DeCapua (DNP, PMHNP-BC)


Latin for "self-murder," suicide is a psychiatric emergency that claims over 42,000 lives every year in the United States.1 It is a fatal act that represents a person's desire to die. Suicide is almost always the result of mental illness, usually depression, and it is preventable when recognized early and treated effectively.

Suicide is ranked as the 10th overall cause of death in the United States (Table 1). Suicide accounts for over 47,000 deaths per year, while homicide accounts for around 20,000.2 Estimates suggest a 25:1 ratio of suicide attempts to completed suicides. Over the past century, these rates have remained constant, averaging 14.5 per 100,000 persons.2

In the United States, suicide rates are lowest in New Jersey for both genders; Montana and Wyoming have the highest for men, and Alaska and Idaho have the highest for women.2 International suicide rates range from 25 per 100,000 in Lithuania, South Korea, and Russia to 10 per 100,000 in Portugal and Australia.2 The Golden Gate Bridge, located in San Francisco, California, is the most common suicide site in the world. Over 1,600 suicides have been completed there since it was built in 1937.

Table 1: Leading Causes of Death in the United States2
Heart disease 647.457
Cancer 599,108
Accidents (unintentional injuries) 169,936
Chronic lower respiratory diseases 160,201


Alzheimer's disease 121,404
Diabetes 83,564
Influenza and Pneumonia 55,672
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis 50,633
Intention self-hard harm (suicide) 47,173

Suicide is the deliberate act of taking one's own life; however, there are a variety of terms used to classify the range of suicidal-type behaviors (Table 2).1 Suicide not only ends a patient's life; it also can leave a devastating legacy to the patient's loved ones and result in litigation against the provider.

Table 2: Terms Describing Suicidal Thinking and Behavior1
Aborted suicide attempt Potentially self-injurious behavior with explicit or implicit evidence that the person intended to die but stopped the attempt before physical damage could occur
Deliberate self-harm Willful self-inflicting of painful, destructive, or harmful acts without the intent to die
Lethality of suicidal behavior Objective danger to one's life associated with a suicide method or action

Lethality is distinct from and may not always coincide with an individual's expectation of what is medically dangerous
Suicidal ideation Thought of serving as the agent of one's death. The seriousness of suicidal ideation may vary depending on the specificity of suicidal plans and the degree of suicidal intent
Suicidal intent Subjective expectation and desire for a self-destructive act to end in death
Suicide attempt Self-injurious behavior with a nonfatal outcome accompanied by explicit or implicit evidence that the person intended to die
Suicide Self-inflicted death with explicit or implicit evidence that the person intended to die

Suicide Risk and Protective Factors

Clinicians should understand both protective and risk factors for suicide. Protective factors buffer individuals from both suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviors. On the other hand, risk factors encompass individual, relationship, community, and societal factors that increase a person's likelihood of attempting suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that protective factors have not been studied extensively, but it is still crucial for clinicians to understand them.3 Protective factors include:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help-seeking
  • Family and community support
  • Skills in problem-solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

Risk factors for suicide can be divided into two categories: high-risk and low-risk characteristics. High-risk characteristics include older than 45 years, male gender, alcohol dependence, violent behavior, previous suicidal behavior, previous psychiatric hospitalization.1 Low-risk features include younger than 45 years, female gender, married, employed, and lack of previous mental health disorder or suicide attempt.1

Table 3: Comparison of high-risk and low-risk characteristics1
Age>45 years<45 years
Marital StatusDivorced or widowedMarried
Interpersonal relationshipsConflictualStable
Family backgroundChaoticStable
Physical HealthChronic illness, hypochondriac, excessive substance intakeGood health, feels healthy, low substance use
Mental HealthSevere depression, psychosis, severe personality disorder, substance abuse, hopelessnessMild depression, neurosis, normal personality, social drinker, optimism
Suicidal ideationFrequent, intense, prolongedInfrequent, low intensity, transient
Suicide attemptMultiple, planned, rescue unlikely, specific wish to die, self-blaming, available lethal methodFirst attempt, impulsive, rescue inevitable, wish for change rather than wish to die, external anger, low lethality method
Personal resourcesPoor achievement, poor insight, unstable affectGood achievement, insightful, controllable affect
Social resourcesPoor rapport, socially isolated, unresponsive familyGood rapport, socially integrated, concerned family


Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, regardless of age, race, religion, or marital status.1 On the other hand, women experience suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide three times as often as men. The reason for this disparity appears to be related to the different ways men and women attempt suicide.


The rate of suicide increases as a person ages.1 Before puberty, suicide is extremely rare. For men, suicide rates are highest at age 45; women are highest after age 55. Elderly persons attempt suicide less often than younger persons, but they are typically more successful. Unfortunately, the suicide rate is rising quickly in younger populations. Today suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 years, followed by accidents and homicides.1

Race and Religion

Caucasian men and women are three times more likely to commit suicide than African American men and women. Native American and Alaskan Native youth experience suicide rates much higher than the national average.4 Rates among immigrants are higher than those among citizens.5 In the United States, Protestants and Jews have higher suicide rates than both Catholics and Muslims. Overall, the level of orthodoxy and integration with society is a more accurate predictor of suicide than religion alone.1

Marital Status

Married individuals with children are much less likely to commit suicide than single persons. Single, never-married individuals experience double the suicide rate compared with married persons.4 Divorce increases the risk of suicide; divorced men are three times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women. Homosexual men and women have higher rates than heterosexual persons, whether married or single. Some individuals commit "anniversary suicides" on the day their family member or loved one died.1


The risk of suicide increases as a person's socioeconomic status increases. In general, employment serves as a protective factor against suicide; however, certain occupations increase a person's risk. High-risk occupations include healthcare providers, artists, mechanics, lawyers, and insurance agents. Unemployed persons are more likely to commit suicide than their employed counterparts. Suicide rates increase during economic recessions and decrease during economic booms.1

Physical Health

Over 30 percent of people who commit suicide have seen a healthcare professional within the previous six months. Physical illness, in general, is a significant contributing factor in half of all suicides. Factors that specifically contribute to suicide include loss of mobility, disfigurement, and chronic pain. Especially when these impact personal relationships and occupational status. Persons on hemodialysis are at an increased risk as well.1

Mental Illness

Nearly 95 percent of those who commit or attempt suicide have a diagnosed mental health disorder. Major depression and other depressive disorders account for 80 percent of suicides; those with delusional depression are at the highest risk.6 Furthermore, schizophrenia accounts for 10 percent, and dementia or delirium accounts for the remaining five percent. Over one-quarter of those who commit suicide are dependent on alcohol at the time.1

Screening and Assessing for Suicide Risk

Suicide risk is evaluated through two means: screens and assessments. Suicide screening refers to the use of a standardized instrument or protocol to identify those at risk for suicide.7 These screens can be completed as part of a comprehensive suicide assessment or separately. Suicide screens may be conducted orally (the screener asking questions), on paper, or a computer.7

Suicide assessment describes a comprehensive evaluation usually completed by a clinician to determine suicide risk and the course of treatment.7 Sometimes assessments include screens, but they may also include an open-ended interview and broader conversations with the individual's friends, family, or other healthcare providers. Assessments encompass detailed evaluations of a person's thoughts, behaviors, risk factors, protective factors, and medical and psychiatric history.7

Screening for Suicide Risk

Although screening scales can help facilitate conversation between patients and providers, expert panels have determined that they have limited value. The following panels have independently reviewed the value of screening for suicide risk7:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense (V.A./DoD) Assessment of Risk for Suicide Working Group
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence
  • The American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Suicidal Behaviors

In their publication, Clinical Practice Guideline for Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide, the V.A./DoD) wrote, "suicide risk assessment remains an imperfect science, and much of what constitutes best practice is a product of expert opinion, with a limited evidence base.8" Also, the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force concluded that suicide screens often elicit a high rate of false positives, rendering them ineffective when used independently from a comprehensive assessment conducted by a professional.9

During their workgroup on suicidal behaviors, the American Psychiatric Association determined that "although suicide assessment scales have been developed for research purposes, they lack the predictive validity necessary for routine clinical practice. Therefore, suicide assessment scales may be used as aids to suicide assessment but should not be used as predictive instruments or as substitutes for a thorough clinical evaluation.10"

Furthermore, in their report, Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, "no specific tests are capable of identifying a suicidal person" and "scales…tend to be oversensitive and under specific and lack predictive value.11"

Even though screening for suicide using questionnaires has low predictive value, they can be useful when used in addition to a comprehensive suicide assessment. When choosing a suicide screen, consider the following7:

  • Has this screen been researched and evaluated?
  • How much does the screen cost?
  • What age group is this screen designed for?
  • How long does it take to administer this screen?
  • Who can conduct this screen (i.e., healthcare providers, mental health providers, or laypersons)?

Screens for Children and Adolescents

In their publication, Assessment of Suicidal Behaviors and Risk Among Children and Adolescents, the National Institute of Mental Health recommends four suicide screening instruments for children and adolescents12:

  1. Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation (BSI)
  2. Harkavy Asnis Suicide Scale (HASS)
  3. Suicide Ideation Questionnaire (SIQ)
  4. Suicidal Behaviors Questionnaire for Children (SBQ-C)

The Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation (BSI) is a 21-question self-report questionnaire that is best used to detect and measure the severity of suicidal thoughts. The authors of this screen emphasize that if a person endorses any item on the BSI, then a suicide assessment should immediately be initiated. The BSI is more thorough than other screens asking questions about the desire to live, suicidal ideation, duration and frequency of suicidal thoughts, and suicidal plan.12

The Harkavy Asnis Suicide Scale (HASS) is a 21-item questionnaire used to gather information about a child's current and past suicidal behavior. This screen collects demographic information, previous suicidal acts, the frequency of suicide-related behaviors over the last two weeks, and recent substance misuse. The HASS is used most commonly in high school students and includes questions like, "Have you ever thought about killing yourself but did not try?1"

The Suicide Ideation Questionnaire (SIQ) is used to determine the severity of suicidal ideation. There are a 30-item and 15-item version, both designed for younger adolescents. The SIQ asks individuals to rate the severity of their suicidal ideation on a 7-point Likert scale. This screen is based on a hierarchy of seriousness of suicidality ranging from thoughts to death to attempting suicide. This screen does not assess previous or recent suicide attempts and should almost always be supplemented by a comprehensive suicide assessment.12

The Suicidal Behaviors Questionnaire for Children (SBQ-C) is a 14 question screen designed to assess suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children and adolescents. It is a self-report tool designed to be easily understood by children and adolescents. Very little psychometric data is available for this questionnaire.12

Screens for Adults

There are various suicide risk screens available for adults; however, it is essential to remember that screens do not replace a comprehensive suicide assessment conducted by a professional. Commonly used suicide screens for adults include:

  1. Beck Scale for Suicidal Ideation (SSI)
  2. Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS)
  3. Nurses' Global Assessment of Suicide Risk

Aaron Beck developed the Scale for Suicide Ideation (SSI) in 1979 to evaluate suicidal thoughts' intensity. It includes 19 questions each scored 0, 1, or 2 based on severity. It places individuals into three categories: active suicidal desire, preparation, and passive suicidal desire. This scale was later revised and named the Modified Scale for Suicide Ideation (MSSI). This screen used a scale of 0 to 3, increasing the ability to discriminate between those who are thinking about suicide and those who are likely to attempt.13

The Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) is used primarily in primary care settings, and it is available in over 100 different languages. The C-SSRS does not require mental health training to administer effectively, and it provides criteria for the next steps (e.g., referral to a psychiatric provider) based on the score.14

The Nurses' Global Assessment of Suicide Risk includes 15 items that help assess a person's risk of attempting suicide. It allows clinicians to evaluate high and low-risk characteristics quickly. Each item on the screen is supported by research; however, the screen itself has not been empirically tested.15

Assessing for Suicide Risk

A suicide assessment is a specific type of psychiatric evaluation aimed at determining a person's suicidal risk and creating a specialized treatment plan. The five domains of suicide assessment include the current presentation of suicidality, psychiatric illness, history, psychosocial situation, individual strengths, and weaknesses.16 These domains are summarized in Table 4.

Table 4: Domains of Suicide Assessment16
Current Presentation of Suicidality
  • Suicidal or self-harming thoughts, plans, behaviors, and intent
  • Specific methods considered for suicide, including their lethality and the patient's expectation about lethality, as well as whether firearms are accessible
  • Evidence of hopelessness, impulsiveness, anhedonia, panic attacks, or anxiety
  • Reasons for living and plans for the future
  • Alcohol or other substance use associated with the current presentation
  • Thoughts, plans, or intentions of violence toward others
Psychiatric Illness
  • Current signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders with particular attention to depressive disorders
  • Previous psychiatric diagnoses and treatments, including illness onset and course and psychiatric hospitalizations, as well as treatment for substance use disorders
  • Previous suicide attempts, aborted suicide attempts, or other self-harming behaviors
  • Previous or current medical diagnoses and treatments, including surgeries or hospitalizations
  • Family history of suicide or suicide attempts or a family history of mental illness, including substance abuse
Psychosocial situation
  • Acute psychosocial crises and chronic psychosocial stressors, which may include actual or perceived interpersonal losses, financial difficulties or changes in socioeconomic status, family discord, domestic violence, and past or current sexual or physical abuse or neglect
  • Employment status, living situation (including whether or not there are infants or children in the home), and presence or absence of external supports
  • Family constellation and quality of family relationships
  • Cultural or religious beliefs about death or suicide
Individual strengths and weaknesses
  • Coping skills
  • Personality traits
  • Past responses to stress
  • Capacity for reality testing
  • Ability to tolerate psychological pain and satisfy psychological needs

During a suicide assessment, clinicians should also conduct a thorough psychiatric evaluation. This information should be obtained from either the patient or their family members and friends. The clinician must approach the situation with empathy and compassion. In the context of a suicide assessment, the purpose of the psychiatric evaluation is to16:

  • Identify specific psychiatric signs and symptoms
  • Assess past suicidal behavior
  • Review past treatment history and treatment relationships
  • Identify a family history of suicide and mental illness
  • Identify the current psychosocial situation and the nature of the crisis
  • Evaluate current substance misuse
  • Appreciate psychological strengths and vulnerabilities

Clinicians should begin by assessing the current signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders.16 They should pay close attention to signs of a depressive disorder and note any high-risk characteristics. Clinicians should document previous psychiatric hospitalizations along with prior treatment for substance use disorders.1 Specific psychiatric symptoms that increase a person's risk of suicide include aggression, violence toward others, impulsiveness, hopelessness, agitation, psychic anxiety, anhedonia, global insomnia, and panic attacks.

Clinicians should obtain and document a thorough history of the patient's previous suicide attempts, aborted suicide attempts, and self-harming behaviors.1 Do not forget; a previous suicide attempt is one of the strongest risk factors for another attempt. When possible, clinicians should contact the patient's current primary care or psychiatric provider.16

Clinicians should also inquire about the patient's family history. Family dysfunction is linked to suicide and other self-harming behaviors.1 Clinicians must assess for a family history of suicide or psychiatric disorders. Clinicians should also document a history of familial conflict or separation, parental legal trouble, family substance abuse, domestic violence, and physical or sexual abuse.15

Next, the clinicians should assess the patient's current psychosocial situation.16 What are their current stressors? Have they experienced any recent interpersonal losses, financial difficulties, or changes in socioeconomic status? The clinician should document acute crises, chronic stressors, employment status, living situation, family constellation, and cultural or religious beliefs about suicide.16

Substance abuse may contribute to suicide. When suspecting substance use disorder, please consider:

  • Ask first about socially acceptable substances such as caffeine or tobacco products. This helps to establish a level of comfort for the rest of the interview. Always ask "how many" and "how often" – e.g.," You mentioned you drink the occasional latte, how many of those during a week?" "So, you have three, four-shot, Grande lattes, six days a week, is that correct?"
  • Next, inquire about alcohol use. Be sure to ask specifically about beer, wine, and spirits, as many cultures do not consider beer to be alcohol.
  • Next, inquire about over the counter substances, including diet aids, cough and cold preparations, herbal supplements.
  • Ask about the misuse of prescription items such as sleep medications, pain preparations, medications for attention deficit disorder, or weight loss.
  • Next, ask about marijuana, which is legal for use in some states or settings. Be sure to quantify how much, how often.
  • Next, ask about illicit drugs. Be sure to be consistently non-judgmental and focus on the information needed for accurate health assistance. Street drugs such as heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens, methamphetamine, and inhalants should be asked about.
  • Remember to ask how much, how often, length of use pattern, and the last time each substance was used. Route of administration is also essential, and be sure to ask whether the person has shared substances, especially injected drugs and needles.
  • If prior substance use disorders are mentioned, ask about participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.), other twelve-step programs, addiction treatments, detoxifications, or periods of abstinence from the substance. Of particular interest is the length of the longest period without the substance without using other illicit substances or alcohol to help maintain.
  • Ask the person what benefits they obtain from their substance of choice. This will be beneficial information when treatment for their substance use disorder begins.
  • Ask what negative consequences have arisen from their substance use. Should they need coaching look for items in each of these three key areas:
    • Physical risks or illnesses – sickness, accidents, fractures, burns, car wrecks?
    • Psychiatric problems – focusing problems, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, psychosis?
    • Relationship problems – work, social relationships, legal difficulties, financial worries?

Finally, clinicians must appreciate the patient's psychological strengths and weaknesses. These may include coping skills, personality traits, thinking style, and development needs. Patients at an increased risk of exhibit polarized thinking, closed-mindedness, perfectionism, and excessively high self-expectations.16

Healthcare providers must directly ask patients about suicidal thoughts, plans, and behaviors; however, cultural and religious beliefs about death and suicide may present a patient from speaking openly about his or her thoughts. In this case, clinicians must seek collateral sources such as spouses, friends, family members, clergy, or other healthcare providers.16

Table 5 includes a list of questions that clinicians can use when inquiring about different aspects of suicide. Clinicians should follow these steps16:

  • Elicit the presence or absence of suicidal ideation
  • Elicit the presence or absence of a suicide plan
  • Assess the degree of suicidality including intent and lethality
Table 5: Questions during a suicide assessment16
Opening questions
  • Have you ever felt that life was not worth living?
  • Did you ever wish you could go to sleep and just not wake up?
Follow-up questions
  • Is death something you have thought about recently?
  • Have things ever reached the point that you have thought of harming yourself?
Thoughts of self-harm and suicide
  • When did you first notice such thoughts?
  • What led to thoughts (e.g., interpersonal and psychosocial precipitants, including real or imagined losses; specific symptoms such as mood changes, anhedonia, hopelessness, anxiety, agitation, psychosis)?
  • How often have those thoughts occurred (including frequency, obsessional quality, controllability)?
  • How close have you come to acting on those thoughts?
  • How likely do you think it is that you will act on them in the future?
  • Have you ever started to harm (or kill) yourself but stopped before doing something (e.g., holding knife or gun to your body but stopping before acting, going to edge of the bridge but not jumping)?
  • What do you envision happening if you killed yourself (e.g., escape, reunion with significant other, rebirth, reactions of others)?
  • Have you made a specific plan to harm or kill yourself? (If so, what does the plan include?)
  • Do you have guns or other weapons available to you?
  • Have you made any particular preparations (e.g., purchasing specific items, writing a note or a will, making financial arrangements, taking steps to avoid discovery, rehearsing the plan)?
  • Have you spoken to anyone about your plans?
  • How does the future look to you?
Previous suicide attempts
  • Can you describe what happened (e.g., circumstances, precipitants, view of future, use of alcohol or other substances, method, intent, the seriousness of injury)?
  • What thoughts were you having beforehand that led up to the attempt?
  • What did you think would happen (e.g., going to sleep versus injury versus dying, getting a reaction from a particular person)?
  • Were other people present at the time?
  • Did you seek help afterward yourself, or did someone get help for you?
  • Had you planned to be discovered, or were you found accidentally?
  • How did you feel afterward (e.g., relief versus regret at being alive)?
  • Did you receive treatment afterward (e.g., medical versus psychiatric, emergency department versus inpatient versus outpatient)?
  • Has your view of things changed, or is anything different for you since the attempt?
  • Are there other times in the past when you have tried to harm (or kill) yourself?
Repeated suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • About how often have you tried to harm (or kill) yourself?
  • When was the most recent time?
  • Can you describe your thoughts at the time that you were thinking most seriously about suicide?
  • When was your most serious attempt at harming or killing yourself?
  • What let up to it, and what happened afterward?
  • Can you describe the voices (e.g., single versus multiple, male versus female, internal versus external, recognizable versus non-recognizable)?
  • What do the voices say (e.g., positive remarks versus negative remarks versus threats)?
  • If the remarks are commands, determine if they are for harmless versus harmful acts; ask for examples?
  • How do you cope with (or respond to) the voices?
  • Have you ever done what the voices ask you to do? (What led you to obey the voices? If you tried to resist them, what made it difficult?)
  • Have there been times when the voices told you to hurt or kill yourself? (How often? What happened?)
  • Are you worried about having a serious illness or that your body is rotting?
  • Are you concerned about your financial situation even when others tell you there is nothing to worry about?
  • Are there things that you have been feeling guilty about or blaming yourself for?
Harm to others
  • Are there others you think may be responsible for what you are experiencing (e.g., persecutory ideas, passivity experiences)?
  • Are you having any thoughts of harming them?
  • Are there other people you would want to die with you?
  • Are there others whom you think would be unable to go on without you?

During and after conducting a suicide screen or assessment, the clinician should develop a strategy for treatment and management of potential suicidal behaviors. In their publication Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Treatment of Patients with Suicidal Behaviors, the American Psychiatric Association defines six critical components of the management of suicidal behavior15:

  • Therapeutic Alliance
  • Patient Safety
  • Determine Treatment Setting
  • Treatment Plan
  • Care Coordination
  • Patient & Family Education

First, the healthcare provider must focus on developing a strong therapeutic alliance with the patient.16 The clinicians should begin by building trust and establishing mutual respect. Only within a trusting relationship will patients feel comfortable discussing and addressing their suicidal ideation and behaviors. The ultimate goal of the patient-provider relationship is reducing the risk of suicide.16

Next, the clinician must attend to the patient's safety.16 Throughout the suicide assessment, the clinician may need to intervene directly to prevent the patient from harming him or herself. For example, the clinician may need to search the patient's belongings for weapons, lighters, matches, medications, or other toxic substances. The healthcare provider may also determine that the patient needs constant observation by another clinician or closed-circuit television.16

After developing a therapeutic alliance and attending to the patient's safety, the clinician must select the most appropriate treatment setting. Patients should always be treated in the least restrictive yet safest, most effective setting.1 Table 6 provides the guidelines for determining when a patient needs inpatient psychiatric treatment.16

Admission to an inpatient psychiatric hospital is usually indicated after a suicide attempt or an aborted suicide attempt.16 Admission may be necessary if the patient expresses suicidal ideation, has previous attempts, and has a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. Outpatient treatment is most beneficial for those with chronic suicidal ideation or who have a stable, supportive living situation.16

Next, clinicians must develop a plan of treatment.16 The treatment plan begins by ensuring the patient's safety and selecting the appropriate treatment setting. After acute treatment, the patient should be referred to a psychiatric specialist such as a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner. These specialized clinicians will continue the patient's care and ensure timely diagnosis and management of any underlying mental health conditions.

In the early phases of treatment, specialists will closely monitor the patient and prescribe specific treatments for symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and hopelessness. During the early stages of recovering from a suicide attempt, patients will be encouraged to undergo education and supportive psychotherapy.

Psychiatric specialists and primary care providers must coordinate their care to offer the best treatment to patients with suicidal behaviors. These patients are often complex, requiring an interdisciplinary team of healthcare professionals such as social workers, case managers, and psychiatric nurses.

When the patient agrees, education should be provided to his or her involved family members. Family members need to understand that psychiatric disorders are real and difficult illnesses that require special treatment. Friends and family should also learn about the role of psychological and social stressors that can precipitate or worsen suicidal behaviors.

Case Study

Jack is a 47-year-old Caucasian male. He has a history of major depressive disorder without psychosis beginning in his early 20s that has been controlled with various antidepressants. Jack has a history of one suicide attempt in his 30s after the death of his mother. He and his wife separated two months ago. Last week he lost his job after repeatedly arriving late. He currently resides in a hotel and is out of contact with his friends and family. Earlier in the evening, his wife called the police after receiving a text message from Jack, where he said he wanted to kill himself. The police brought Jack to the emergency room, stating that they found him in his hotel room with a gun and bottle of vodka. Jack appears disheveled, depressed, and withdrawn. He tells you his life is not worth living, and he wants to end his life. He does express some desire to seek treatment but fears his situation is hopeless.

How should the health professional respond? In this scenario, Jack has expressed to both his wife and the clinician that he wants to kill himself. He also has a highly lethal means—a gun—and appears to have limited social support. Recent traumatic life experiences and a history of a suicide attempt, and also increase his risk. Collectively, his risk and history indicate a need for inpatient hospitalization.

Continue reading to learn more about referral and determining the level of care.


Levels of Care

Within the mental health system, there are varying levels of care. These levels range from not at all restrictive (e.g., outpatient care) to very restrictive (e.g., acute inpatient).17 The more restrictive services are reserved for the most acute cases, whereas the less restrictive services are for less acute cases.

Individuals require different levels of care at various times during their treatment, depending on the severity of their symptoms or degree of occupational or social impairment.17 Levels of care in the mental health system include:

  • Inpatient
  • Residential
  • Partial Hospital
  • Intensive Outpatient
  • Outpatient

Inpatient treatment is the highest, most acute level of nursing and medical services. It is provided in a structured environment 24-hours a day. Patients have full and immediate access to healthcare providers, and they undergo extensive and comprehensive psychiatric treatment. Inpatient treatment may be sought voluntarily by patients or deemed medically necessary by a healthcare provider. Inpatient treatment generally lasts three to seven days.18

Residential treatment is one level down from inpatient, and it is considered sub-acute. These patients have access to 24-hour skilled nursing care, and they often live onsite through their recovery. They usually undergo treatment that combines medication with a group and individual psychotherapy.1

Partial hospitalization refers to an intensive, non-residential setting where patients receive care during the day but return to their homes at night. They undergo structured medical and nursing care with services similar to inpatient psychiatric hospitals. Usually, in these settings, the patient received medication treatment and participant in group psychotherapy.1

Intensive outpatient treatment offers patients regular contact with mental health professionals, often multiple days per week. Patients in intensive outpatient programs receive care more often than those in general outpatient services but less often than those in partial hospital programs.1 Outpatient care, on the other hand, is the least restrictive form of mental health care. Patients regularly meet with their mental health provider in an office setting to undergo psychotherapy sessions and medication management.1

Determining Treatment Setting

After completing a suicide assessment, a qualified mental health clinician can determine the most appropriate level of care.16 Table 6 offers guidelines for determining the best treatment setting for a particular patient.

Following a suicide attempt, inpatient psychiatric treatment is recommended. Following an aborted suicide attempt, inpatient psychiatric treatment is most likely recommended, especially if the patient expresses regret surviving or a persistent internet to end their life. If the patient has minimal family or social support, is psychotic, or is declining any type of mental health care, they most likely require inpatient treatment.16

Furthermore, inpatient psychiatric hospitalization may also be necessary for the presence of suicidal ideation.16,17 If a patient expresses suicidal thoughts, and they have a history of previous attempts, the presence of another psychiatric disorder, and limited social support, they may require inpatient treatment. If the patient describes a specific plan with high lethality, they almost always need hospitalization.17

Partial hospitalization is appropriate for patients who do not require inpatient treatment but require more intensive services than available in outpatient settings.17 Because partial hospitalization is highly structured with both nursing and medical services, it is best for those experiencing suicidal ideation without a specific plan and with some social support. Importantly, when choosing partial over inpatient hospitalization, consider whether the patient has the capacity for reliable attendance. Partial hospitalization is also used as a step-down from inpatient treatment to help patients transition to outpatient treatment.16,17

Outpatient mental health services are appropriate if patients experience transient or mild suicidal ideation without a specific plan or intent to attempt.17 These patients should also have a stable and supportive living situation and be willing to cooperate with follow-up recommendations.

Table 6: Guidelines for Determining Treatment Setting16
Inpatient treatment recommendedAfter a suicide attempt or aborted suicide attempt if:
  • The patient is psychotic
  • The attempt was violent, near-lethal, or premeditated
  • Precautions were taken to avoid rescue
  • Persistent plan or intent
  • The patient regrets surviving
  • The patient is male, older than 45 years, with new-onset suicidal thinking
  • The patient has limited family and social support
  • The patient lacks a stable living condition
  • Current impulsive behavior and severe agitation
  • The patient is refusing help
  • In the presence of suicidal ideation with a specific plan with high lethality
Inpatient treatment might be necessaryIn the presence of suicidal ideation with:
  • Psychosis
  • Major psychiatric disorder
  • Past attempts
  • Lack of response to or inability to cooperate with a partial hospital or outpatient treatment
  • Need for supervised setting for medication trial or ECT
  • Need for skilled observation, clinical tests, or diagnostic assessments that require a structured setting
  • Limited family and social support, including lack of stable living situation
  • Lack of access to timely outpatient follow-up
Outpatient treatment recommendedAfter a suicide attempt or in the presence of suicidal ideation/plan when:
  • Suicidality is a reaction to precipitating events (e.g., exam failure, relationship difficulties), particularly if the patient's view of the situation has changed since coming to the emergency department
  • Plan/method and intent have low lethality
  • The patient has a stable and supportive living situation
  • The patient can cooperate with recommendations for follow-up
  • The patient has chronic suicidal ideation without prior medically serious attempts and has a safe and supportive living situation

Involuntary Treatment

After a person has attempted suicide, they often require inpatient psychiatric treatment. Sometimes patients will agree to this treatment, while others will not. Involuntary commitment laws vary from state to state. Apply your state’s laws.

Continuity of Care

In 2011, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) collaborated with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to review the research on suicide attempts occurring following a patient's discharge from an emergency department or inpatient psychiatric hospital.19 They published their findings in a report titled Continuity of Care for Suicide Prevention and Research.

In their report, both SPRC and SAMHSA found that many lives could be saved by improving the continuity of care between the emergency department and psychiatric services.19 After patients are discharged from the emergency room and inpatient psychiatric hospitals, they must be effectively transitioned to outpatient psychiatric services. Continuity of care refers to linking providers in one setting to providers in another and ensuring that all clinical information is transferred correctly and smoothly.19

Best practice for contacting patients.

Discharge plans for patients with suicidal thoughts or a recent suicide attempt should include making contact with their outpatient providers. This approach increases the patient's access to follow-up care and reduces the risk of relapse. As discharge plans are established, always consider the particular patient's barriers to treatment, such as financial or transportation challenges. Best practices for connecting a patient to a referral include19:

  1. Scheduling the follow-up appointment within one to seven days.
  2. Give the patient crisis contract information such as the phone number for the local crisis center and the National Suicide Prevention website (
  3. Facilitate a phone call between the other provider and the patient, especially if this will be a new provider for the patient.
  4. Create a safety plan that consists of a list of the patient's coping strategies and their sources of social support. Safety planning is not the same as "Contracts for Safety" or "No-Suicide Contracts," which have limited research supporting their effectiveness. On the other hand, a safety plan helps create a dialogue between the patient and clinician to discuss their transition.
  5. Reinforce to the patient the importance of follow-up care. Speak directly to his or her social support so that they know the plan as well.
  6. If you cannot make an appointment with a psychiatric provider, refer the patient back to the primary care provider. With the patient's consent, transmit all clinical information to the primary care provider directly.

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