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ASSESSMENT AND MANAGEMENT OF THE SUICIDAL PATIENT

by William W. Deardorff, Ph.D, ABPP.


6 Credit Hours - $99
Last revised: 03/21/2017

Course content © Copyright 2012 - 2017 by William W. Deardorff, Ph.D, ABPP. All rights reserved.



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This course overlaps with the course, Suicide Risk Assessment: You May Save a Life.  The other course includes clinical content but has a focus on risk management and ethics.  This course is more comprehensive and has a clinical focus only.  Of course, both courses can be reviewed in their entirety prior to purchase so that you might determine which best suites your needs and interests.   

 

 

“There are two types of mental health therapists: those who have had a patient commit suicide and those who will”

 

 

COURSE OUTLINE

 

Introduction

Learning Objectives

Suicide in the United States

Materials for the Course

Framework for Suicide Risk Assessment and Management

Agreeing on Terms and Definitions

Potentiating Risk Factors

Warning Signs

Protective Factors

Tools of Suicide Risk Assessment

The Clinical Interview

Therapeutic Alliance

Countertransference

A Proposed Model for Assessment

Overview of Risk Factor Areas

Predisposition to Suicide

Stressors or Precipitants

Symptomatic Presentation

Presence of Hopelessness

The Nature of Suicide Thinking

Previous Suicidal Behavior

Impulsivity and Self-Control

Protective Factors

Actuarial Risk Assessment Instruments

What do I do with all of this Information?

Suicide Risk Level and Appropriate Responses

A Comment on No-Suicide Contracts

Alternatives to the No-Suicide Contract

Commitment to Treatment Statement

Crisis and Response Plan

Suicide Management

Thorough Assessment of Suicide Risk

Establishing an Appropriate Management Plan

Involve Family Members and/or Significant Others

Consult with other Professionals

Implement the Plan Assuming Professional Responsibility

Guides to Assessment and Management of Suicidal Behavior

Assessment of Suicidal Risk

A Decision-making Framework

Outpatient Management Strategies

Documentation Strategies

Coordination with Inpatient Care

Clinic Support and Peer Consultation

Ensuring Continuity of Care

Links with the Community and Self-Help Focus

A Special Population: Geriatric Patients

Increased risk in Geriatric Patients

Masked Depression in the Elderly

Accurate Identification of Depression in the Elderly

Treatment

Suicide in the Patient without Depression

Learning from our Mistakes

Lack of Communication between Therapists

Permitting the Patient or Relatives to Control Therapy

Therapist Avoidance of Issues Related to Sexuality

Ineffective/Coercive Actions Due to Therapist’s Anxiety

Not Recognizing the Meaning of Patient’s Communications

Untreated or Undertreated Symptoms

Documentation

Summary and Conclusions

Resources

References

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Most therapists receive very little formal training on the assessment and management of the suicidal patient.  It has been estimated that less than 40% of graduate programs provide curriculum-based education in this area (Oordt et al., 2009).  This means that most practitioners must learn about this important aspect of practice from during a supervised experience, continuing education, or self-taught when the need arises.  This is certainly not an ideal situation for equipping professionals with managing one of the most important issues in practice.  The lack of attention to formal education in this area is likely due to its low base rate.  But even with the low base rate, suicide does not occur on continuum; if completed is it “all or nothing”, underscoring the importance of having expertise in this area. In addition, due to managed care and limited resources, inpatient care for suicidal patients has become increasingly limited, meaning providers have to provide quality management of the suicidal patient on an outpatient basis.  Even so, there is increasing evidence that outpatient management of the suicidal patient can be appropriate, safe, and often preferable to inpatient care.  All of these issues will be discussed in this course. 

 

Seeing a patient with suicidal ideation or behavior is probably one of the most challenging and emotionally-charged areas in mental health practice.  It is also highly likely to occur on one or more occasions in a professional’s career.  In fact, the possibility of confronting a situation involving a suicide or suicide attempt is ever-present in practice.  Consider the following statistics presented in Table 1 (See Schwartz & Rogers, 2004; Tsao & Layde, 2007 and references for a review):

 

 

Table 1. Clinicians and Suicidal Patients

 

 

More than 50% of psychiatrists and 20% of psychologists report having lost at least one patient to suicide

 

Between 20% and 50% of psychiatry and psychology trainees report losing a patient to suicide during internship or residency

 

It is estimated that over 20% of counseling psychology trainees will be exposed to clinical situations involving suicide at some point during their training

 

In at least one study, 71% of mental health counselors in practice reported having had at least one client attempt suicide

 

In the same study, 28% had at least one client commit suicide

 

 

Effect on the therapist.  Patient suicides are among the most traumatic events in a clinician’s professional life.  Studies show that suicide is the number one source of stress for therapists (the emotional impact of a patient’s suicide is comparable to the death of a family member).

 

 

Learning Objectives

 

 

List four terms and definitions related to suicidality

List 6 key suicide risk factors, including potentiating factors and warning signs

Discuss suicide in the elderly

Discuss therapists’ mistakes in assessing/managing suicidality

Discuss two examples of suicide risk assessment and appropriate responses

 

 

Suicide in the United States

 

The following Table presents an overview of US statistics related to suicide.  This is general data and more detailed information can be found on the NIMH and CDC web sites.  As will be seen, this information is important since it provides data that enters into the suicide risk assessment process.  Those in these static higher risk groups might be assessed more carefully and more frequently as part of mental health treatment.  For instance, according to this demographic data, an 85 year old white male already has increased risk regardless of any other factors (that will be discussed in this course such as mental illness, substance use, impulse control, etc.).

 

 

Table 2.  Overview of U.S. Statistics Related to Suicide

 

 

Recent data show that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 34,598 deaths.

 

The overall rate was 11.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

 

An estimated 11 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death.

 

Suicide was the seventh leading cause of death for males and the fifteenth leading cause of death for females.

 

Almost four times as many males as females die by suicide.

 

Suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.

 

Of every 100,000 young people in each age group, the following number died by suicide:

Children ages 10 to 14 — 0.9 per 100,000

Adolescents ages 15 to 19 — 6.9 per 100,000

Young adults ages 20 to 24 — 12.7 per 100,000

 

Nearly five times as many males as females ages 15 to 19 died by suicide.

Just under six times as many males as females ages 20 to 24 died by suicide.

 

Older Americans are disproportionately likely to die by suicide. Of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, 14.3 died by suicide. This figure is higher than the national average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population. 

 

Non-Hispanic white men age 85 or older had an even higher rate, with 47 suicide deaths per 100,000.

 

Of every 100,000 people in each of the following ethnic/racial groups below, the following number died by suicide:

 

Highest rates:

American Indian and Alaska Natives — 14.3 per 100,000

Non-Hispanic Whites — 13.5 per 100,000

Lowest rates:

Hispanics — 6.0 per 100,000

Non-Hispanic Blacks — 5.1 per 100,000

Asian and Pacific Islanders — 6.2 per 100,000

 

 

The following Figures from the NIMH web sites demonstrate how age is related to suicide rates. In looking over these Figures, one can see how age should be taken into account in terms of a risk factor.

 

age adjusted suicide rates in the united states 2014

 

 

figure 2 suicide rates by age in the united states 2014

 

Other data that is important to take into account includes Race/Ethnicity and geographic location.  Again, Figures from the NIMH web site illustrate how these variables are associated with suicide risk.

 

figure 3 suicide rates by race ethnicity in the united states 2014

 

 

 

suicide rates in the united states by state per 2010

 

The Washington State Suicide Prevention Plan - Statistics

 

Beyond these general national statistics, there is also current data from the state of Washington that is informative.  In January of 2016, Washington State addressed the need to take a public health approach to reduce firearm fatalities and suicides.  At that time, the Washington State Suicide Prevention Plan was introduced. this plan outlines several strategic directions, goals, and recommendations for implementation by communities and stakeholders across diverse professional disciplines.  This program was initiated, in part, due to the problem of suicide as found in 2015 data analysis. Some of this data is as follows:  In 2015, 1170 people in the state of WA died by suicide. As can be seen, this is more than all of the other areas that were assessed, combined: 

 WAState Violent Deaths

 

The data also demonstrated that males (especially older) have a higher risk of suicide than females:

 

WAState Age Sex

 

The data also demonstrated that the rate of suicide varies by race, with American Indians and Alaskan Natives having the highest rates:

 

WAState Race

 

The method of suicide also varies by sex with most males who died by suicide used a firearm while poisoning was the most common method used by females.

 

WAState Method Sex

 

These examples from the state of WA, similar to the national statistics, underscore the importance of being aware of elevated risk status even before taking into account the unique individual situation. For example, if you are assessing an older Native American male who owns a handgun, you know the risk category is elevated even before you have any one-to-one contact with the individual. If you specialize in working with any group that already has an elevated suicide risk (statistically), suicide risk assessment and closer monitoring takes on increased importance.

 

Materials for the course

 

This course is based on all the content contained herein as well as other outside resources.  These resources are in the public domain and are primarily official guides that include reviews of the literature.  Although all the information is summarized in the following, the course also includes requires a review of these publications.

 

 

Additional Materials Required for the Course

 

 

The following materials are also required reading for the course.  Although much of the material overlaps with what is presented herein (and also across these various resources), each publication provides additional detailed information.  

 

In this resource, please pay particular attention to Module C (Treatment of the Patient at Risk for Suicide) and Module D (Follow-up and Monitoring of the Patient at Risk for Suicide).  These sections provide more detail in these areas. Also, especially for WA State users, please carefully review Access to Lethal Means (pages 43-46) and Limiting Access to Lethal Means (pages 75-78). This publication also provide a lot of information specific to military service members and veterans: 

 

VA/DOD Clinical Practice Guideline for Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide (or here)

 

The following publication has an excellent section that reviews the various suicide risk assessment tools that are available (See pages 35-62).

 

Suicide Risk Assessment Guide: A Resource for Health Care Organizations (or here)

 

This publication has information that overlaps with many of the other materials.  Please pay particular attention to Section III, Psychiatric Management (pages 29-40) for more detail on treatment issues:

 

Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Treatment of Patients With Suicidal Behaviors (or here)

 

The following two publications provide addtional detail on suicide assessment and treatment with a special focus on military personnel.  Please pay particular attention to Section 4: Evidence Based Interventions for Suicide Prevention (pages 49-70).

 

Air Force Guide for Suicide Risk Assessment, Management, and Treatment (or here)

 

For those interested in more resources, this publication provides additional tools and Resources.

 

Air Force Guide For Managing Suicidal Behavior: Appendices (or here)

 

For those individuals who are taking the course to satisfy the Washington State requirement for suicide prevention and management education, the following materials are also required to review (however, this is excellent information and it is recommended that all users review this information):

 

Firearm Fatality Prevention - A Public Health Approach (January, 2017)

 

Suicide Prevention - Veterans Module

 

 

Framework for Suicide Risk Assessment and Monitoring

 

The following framework is adapted from the materials listed in the Table above and other resources (See resources and references).  As discussed in the HCO Guide (p. 65):

 

“Suicide risk assessment needs to be thorough, person-centered, and simple.  It needs to incorporate multiple approaches to ascertain a person’s level of distress and risk of suicide.”

 

The process of suicide risk assessment is just as important as the assessment tool(s) chosen for use.  The clinician, depending on a number of factors, will decide which approach or combination of approaches works best in his or her particular setting and patient population.  The HCO Guide, based on the extant research in the area and interviews with experts, suggests that clinicians should:

 

Beware of warning signs, potentiating risk factors, and protective factors

Use good clinical judgment as well as other information about the patient

Document findings

Appropriately monitor the patient

 

Agreeing on Terms and Definitions

 

When discussing suicide risk assessment and management, it is important to be able to agree on terms and definitions to insure accurate communication (Rudd, 2008; Rudd et al., 2006).  In some cases, patients with different characteristics will need to be assessed and managed very differently (e.g. history of suicide attempts versus instrumental suicide-related behavior versus self-harm).  Current terminology can be found in Table 3.

 

 

Table 3. Definition of Terms Related to Suicidality 

 

 

Suicide – an intentional, self-inflicted act that results in death.  Synonymous with “completed suicide.”

 

Suicide attempt with injuries – An action resulting in nonfatal injury, poisoning, or suffocation where there is evidence that the injury was self-inflicted and that the person intended at some level to die.

 

Suicide attempt without injuries – A potentially self-injurious behavior with a non-fatal outcome, for which there is evidence that the person intended at some level to kill himself/herself.

 

Instrumental suicide-related behavior – Potentially  self-injurious behavior for which there is evidence that the person did not intend to die (zero intent) and the person wished to use the appearance of intending to commit suicide in order to attain some other end (seek help, punish others, receive attention).  Instrumental suicide-related behavior can occur with injuries, without injuries, or with fatal outcome (accidental death).

 

Suicide Threat – Any interpersonal action, verbal or non-verbal, stopping short of a directly self-harmful act, that a reasonable person would interpret as communicating or suggesting that a suicide act or other suicide-related behavior might occur in the near future.

 

Suicidal Ideation – Any self-reported thoughts of engaging in suicide-related behavior.

 

Self-harm – an intentional and often repetitive behavior that involves the infliction of harm to one’s body for purposes not socially condoned and WITHOUT suicidal intent.

 

 

When completing a suicide risk assessment it is important to distinguish between some other key concepts beyond defining terms.  For instance, some risk factors are associated with suicide (potentiating risk factors and/or chronic risk factors) and some are known to actually increase the risk of suicide (acute or warning signs).  Potentiating or chronic risk factors tend to be static and do not change much over time.  These risk factors do not necessarily indicate that a person is at increased risk for an imminent attempt. On the other hand, acute or warning signs are dynamic and are those factors that suggest suicidal behavior may be set in motion in the very near future. Warning signs may suggest the heightened risk of suicide in the short term even in the absence of potentiating/chronic risk factors.  Alternatively, potentiating/chronic risk factors may predispose a person to a chronic heightened risk of suicide in which warning signs may not be present (but when they emerge, may represent an emergent situation).  The interplay between potentiating risk factors and warning signs will be discussed further after the presentation of the specific factors (See Table 4).

 

 

Table 4.  Key Concepts in Suicide Risk Assessment and Management

 

 

Potentiating Risk Factors – these include such things as unemployment, financial difficulties, social isolation, prior trauma or abuse, previous suicide behavior, chronic mental illness, physical illness, etc.  The factors tend to be more static (not rapidly changing) and can form the basis of a chronic suicide risk level (low to high).

 

Warning Signs – are factors that may set into motion the process of suicide in the short term.  These may be conceptualized as occurring in the acute phase of suicidality. These can occur as an exacerbation of a chronic suicide baseline.  

 

Protective Factors – these are factors that have been associated with a reduced risk of suicide.  Although risk factors are more strongly associated with suicidality, interventions often focus on enhancing protective factors while reducing risk factors.

 

 

In addition, it is important to distinguish between chronic suicidality and acute suicidality, since these patients must be managed differently.  Chronic suicidality presents differently from acute suicidality, and the treatment approach is different.  For instance, hospitalization of the chronically suicidal person (absent significant warning signs) has little value in preventing suicide and may have a negative effect (repeated admission, destruction of therapeutic alliance).  The chronically suicidal patient may present symptoms over the long term (e.g. months or years) but still must be assessed and monitored for emergence of acute suicidality (warning signs).  Treatment of the chronically suicidal patient often includes addressing the underlying reasons for the symptoms (e.g. personality disorder, as a means to express distress). In these cases, the clinician must often tolerate the suicidality over extended periods and provide treatment in the least restrictive setting (e.g. outpatient) even when there is a slightly elevated risk.  

 

TOOLS OF SUICIDE RISK ASSESSMENT

 

The assessment of suicide risk is most often based upon the identification and appraisal of potentiating/chronic risk factors, acute/warnings signs AND protective factors that are present.  The assessment should always include a clinical interview and collection of other important information as appropriate (past treatment records, information from family, etc.).  The clinical interview can be augmented by risk assessment instruments.  As this material is presented, the reader may walk away with the feeling that an appropriate suicide risk assessment is an onerous, lengthy, complex task and might take the better part of a full day to complete.  Actually, much of the information that will be reviewed should be collected as part of any initial clinical interview and is not unique to suicide risk assessment.  This presentation discusses how to think about, and organize, information that is routinely collected, along with adding some key questions unique to this area.  Subsequently, some suggestions for documentation of the risk factors assessment will be discussed.

 

The Clinical Interview

 

Therapeutic alliance. Most clinicians in practice probably use the clinical interview (and follow up interviews or treatment sessions) as their primary source of data in completing a suicide risk assessment.  One of the key elements of an effective clinical interview (assessing suicide risk factors or anything else), is rapid establishment of the therapeutic relationship.  In some settings, the suicide risk assessment may be vulnerable to becoming automated and focus solely on triage of services or gathering the necessary information as quickly as possible (checking off the boxes).  Therefore, the primary principle for maintaining a person-centered risk assessment is the establishment of a therapeutic relationship (APA, 2003).  This relationship is based on utilizing the clinical skills with which the reader should be familiar (e.g. active listening, trust, respect, genuineness, empathy, etc.). 

 

Patients can usually sense when a clinician is comfortable with the topic of suicide.  At that point, the patient may feel safe enough to share important information about their suicidality, especially warning signs that suggest an attempt is imminent.

 

Countertransference and being comfortable with the topic. In addition to quickly establishing a therapeutic relationship, it is also important that the clinician be comfortable asking about suicide risk and protective factors, as well as having insight into any countertransference issues that might arise (e.g. feeling the patient “uses” suicide ideation or gestures in a manipulative fashion, etc.).  Some of the countertransference issues that arise in the therapist might include (See Table 5):

 

 

Table 5.  Countertransference Issues

 

 

Anxiety-Avoidance:  I don’t accept suicidal patients into my practice

 

Hopelessness: If a person is really intent on killing himself, there is nothing one can do to stop him

 

Contempt:  If I were him, I would kill myself too

 

Disdain:  It wasn’t a serious attempt – just a manipulative gesture

 

Hostility: Maybe he will get it right next time

 

 

Another countertransference issue actually relates to the goal of the suicide risk assessment.  As discussed by Shea (1998):

 

“It seems pertinent to raise a countertransference issue that many interviewers do not like to admit, but one which I think is present in most of us.  Namely, if we uncover serious suicidal ideation, we are potentially creating a mess for ourselves.”

 

This type of countertransference leads the therapist to ignore comprehensive assessment of suicide risk factors in the first place and minimize their significance, if found, in the second place.

 

A Proposed Model for Assessment

 

Bryan and Rudd (2006) present a model that is based primarily on the clinical interview.  An overview of their model, supplemented by other literature, will be presented here.  There are a number of areas that have been empirically shown to be important to risk assessment and should be included as part of the clinical assessment. 

 

 

Table 6. Suicide Risk Assessment Areas

 

 

Predisposition to suicidal behavior

Previous history of psychiatric diagnosis

Previous history of suicidal behavior

Recent discharge from inpatient psychiatric treatment

Same-sex sexual orientation

Male gender

History of abuse

Identifiable precipitants or stressors

Significant loss (financial, interpersonal, identity)

Acute or chronic health problems

Relationship instability

Symptomatic presentation

Depressive symptoms

Bipolar disorder

Anxiety

Schizophrenia

Borderline and antisocial personality features

Presence of hopelessness (severity/duration)

Nature of suicidal thinking

Current ideation, plan, availability of means

Lethality of means

Active suicidal behavior, Explicit suicide intent

Previous suicidal behavior

Frequency and context

Perceived lethality and outcome

Opportunity for rescue and help seeking

Preparatory behaviors

Impulsivity and self-control

Subjective self-control

Objective control (substance use, impulsivity, aggression)

Protective Factors

[These are presented in Table 16]

 

 

When assessing suicide risk, it is important to distinguish between explicit and implicit intent.  Explicit or subjective intent is the patient’s stated intent, or what the patient actually says during the interview (e.g. “Even though I have thought about killing myself, I would never do it”). Implicit or objective intent is estimated by the patient’s current and past behaviors, as well as his or her expressed understanding of the lethality of the method chosen (e.g. past attempts, means available, low impulse control, substance use, multiple stressors, lethal means available).  When the clinician notices a discrepancy between implicit and explicit data, this should be pointed out to the patient and discussed.  An example might be a person who says, “I would never really commit suicide……those weren’t real attempts in my past” while the data indicate likely history of lethal attempts, low impulse control, substance use, a gun in the house, lack of social support, etc.

 

Bryan and Rudd (2006) suggest using a 1-to-10 rating scale as a useful method when doing a suicide risk assessment.  This has several advantages including:

 

     providing the patient with a method to quantify and clarify a response

     permitting comparisons over time and treatment sessions

     providing a method for the therapist and patient to identify change

     potentially improving communication when more than one clinician is involved

 

Examples of questioning using this method include the following (adapted from Bryan and Rudd, 2006, p. 190).  Each of these types of questions is followed by, “on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being ______ and 10 being ______”.  The therapist can decide on the anchors for each question and which direction equals a more or less severe direction.

 

How would you rate the severity of your hopelessness?

How would you rate your intent to kill yourself right now?

How would you rate the severity of the thoughts to kill yourself?

How would you rate your hopefulness about the future? 

How would you rate your ability to seek help if you feel very suicidal?

 

Acute versus chronic risk.  As discussed previously, it is important to keep in mind acute versus chronic risk factors.  In general, chronic risk factors are similar to what was termed potentiating factors previously.  These factors tend to be static.  As will be reviewed in more detail later, each individual will have a chronic suicide baseline level which represents a compilation of the predisposing factors and ongoing issues.  The baseline is the state in which the patient is going to be “as good as it gets.”  Against that background, patients will show acute exacerbations preceded by the warning signs.  These factors are considered “dynamic.”

 

Overview of Risk Factors Areas

 

The following is an overview of the risk areas presented in Table 6.  It is beyond the scope of this course to present the detailed and extensive research relative to each area.  For comprehensive review and practice guidelines the reader is referred elsewhere (See Material for the Course listed previously).

 

Predisposition to Suicide 

 

Predispositions to suicide are stable (static) factors and should be assessed as part of any initial interview.  These include previous history of psychiatric diagnoses, previous history of suicidal behavior, and history of abuse.  Research suggests that a person is at a higher suicide risk within one year of release from inpatient psychiatric treatment. Even though warning signs may not be imminent, this represents a “chronic” risk factor. The other risk factors listed in Table 6 interact in somewhat complex ways and it is not a simple additive effect (e.g. more factors equals greater risk).  For the clinician in practice, taking note of these potential factors, within the context of all other factors assessed, is important.

 

Stressors or Precipitants

 

There are multiple issues that might be considered a stressor or precipitant to suicidal behavior.  Some of these have been more consistently demonstrated in the literature and some will be unique to the individual patient.  The use of the 1-to-10 rating method can give the clinician a rapid method for assessing just how stressful the issue is perceived by the patient.  As listed in the Table, a stressor might include any significant loss such as financial (job, investments, lawsuit), interpersonal (marriage, other relationship, death of loved one), health problems (acute or chronic), or family instability (change in family structure for any reason such as divorce, loss of child custody, etc.).

 

Symptomatic Presentation

 

Research has demonstrated a significant risk factor for suicide in the presence of a major mood disorder, especially during the depressive phase.  As discussed by Bryan and Rudd (2006), and in this course earlier, because the base-rate of the behavior is so low (less than 1% of individuals who have an affective disorder commit suicide) it is extremely difficult for a practitioner to successfully identify which individuals with affective disorders are high risk.  Research has identified some of the more potent predictors related to affective disorder symptoms. These include hopelessness, low self-esteem, and substance abuse/dependence. Relative to bipolar disorders, the risk is higher early in the course of the disorder.  For schizophrenia, the lifetime risk of suicide is about 4% and peaks during young adulthood.  Relative to personality disorders, the categories of borderline and antisocial appear to carry higher risk.

 

Presence of Hopelessness

 

A majority of suicidal patients report hopelessness (and gaining relief from it) as a primary motivator for the suicidal behavior.  Therefore, the presence of hopelessness, along with its severity and duration should be carefully assessed.

 

The Nature of Suicidal Thinking

 

Although clinicians are often not comfortable discussing suicidal thinking with patients, it is extremely important to assess it in an open manner.  Clinicians may have a tendency to avoid the topic thinking that “If I don’t bring it up, it won’t be an issue”.  Suicidal thinking should be assessed for the following dimensions (See Table 7):

 

 

Table 7.  Assessment of Suicidal Thinking

 

 

Frequency   

 

 

How often do you think about suicide?

 

 

Intensity

 

 

How would you rate the intensity of your thoughts?

 

 

Duration    

 

 

How long have you had these thoughts?

 

 

Specificity and plans

 

 

Have you thought about how, when and where to kill yourself?

 

 

Availability of means

 

 

Do you have access to a [gun, pills]?

 

 

Active behaviors

 

 

Have you taken any steps to prepare for your suicide? [note, finances in order, other]?

 

 

Explicit intent

 

 

When you are thinking about suicide what helps you feel better, more hopeful?

 

 

Deterrents 

 

 

What stops you from killing yourself?

 

 

To enhance the therapeutic alliance and decrease resistance, it can be useful to discuss more remote suicidal episodes first and then move toward the present.  The clinician might also need to take into account cultural issues and this line of questioning.  Some cultures maybe more or less open to discussing suicide issues.  As discussed by Bryan and Rudd, “hidden” suicide “ideators” exist in all groups and it is important to complete a full risk assessment to identify them.  As the authors conclude, “We recommend that direct probing for suicidal intent be practiced as a general rule, not as a special circumstance” (p. 194).

 

 

Table 8. Previous Suicidal Behavior

 

 

Frequency

 

How often have you attempted to kill or hurt yourself?

 

 

Context

 

What was going on during those times?

 

 

 

Perceived Lethality  

 

Why did you choose that method? Did you think it would be successful?

 

 

Opportunity for Rescue  

 

 

Did you know ____ would rescue you?

 

 

Identifiable Preparation for Death

  

 

Have you been putting your will together?  Have you been giving away items?

 

 

Previous Suicidal Behavior

 

It is important to not only assess previous suicide behavior but also the various dimensions for each attempt (See Table 8). In this process, it is important to distinguish between previous attempts (with and without injuries) and instrumental suicide-related behavior for each instance.  This will give the clinician a very good idea of increased risk especially when “chronic risk” is identified. Research has demonstrated increased future risk is associated with number of previous actual attempts and the method of previous attempts.  One must also pay close attention to those with a history of instrumental suicide-related behavior since these patients may underestimate the lethality of the method relative to future suicide attempts (or behavior).

 

Impulsivity and Self-control

 

This area should assess the patient’s perceived sense of self-control, objective identifiers of self-control, engagement in impulsive or self-destructive behaviors and methods for coping with stress (See Table 9 for examples).

 

 

Table 9. Assessment of Self-Control

 

 

Perceived sense of control 

 

Do you consider yourself impulsive?

Why, why not?

Have you recently felt out of control?

 

 

Objective identifiers   

 

How often do you drink or use substances?

Have you had problems with any type of impulsive behavior?

Have you ever been arrested?

 

 

Impulsive/Self-Destructive

Behaviors   

             

 

 

violent, aggressive, sexual acting out

 

 

Coping methods

 

substance use, social withdrawal

 

 

The use of alcohol and other impulse control lowering substances has consistently been found to be associated with increased suicide risk.  Also, the presence of impulsivity as a long-standing problem or personality trait may be a more significant risk factor than a formulated plan.  This is due to the fact that suicide attempts are often in reaction to specific environmental stressors (often unpredictable).

 

Protective Factors

 

There are many factors that have been identified as associated with reduced risk for suicidal behavior and these have been termed protective factors. These are presented in Table 10.  Although risk factors have a stronger relationship with suicidality than protective factors, the latter are important relative to treatment interventions.  Protective factors are important to assess not only related to an overall suicide risk assessment, but also as a starting place for developing a suicide management treatment plan.  Often, the treatment plan for a patient with suicidality will include enhancing protective factors while decreasing risk factors.

 

 

Table 10. Protective Factor in Suicide Risk Assessment

 

 

Social support: strong connections to family and community

Skills in problem solving, coping and conflict resolution

Sense of belonging, sense of identity, and good self-esteem

Cultural, spiritual and religious connections and beliefs

Hopefulness; Identification of future goals

Constructive use of leisure time (enjoyable activities)

Active participation in treatments (medical and mental health, etc.)

Children present in the home

Pregnancy

Life satisfaction

Intact reality testing

Fear of social disapproval

Fear of suicide or death

Absence of potentiating risk factors and warning signs

 

 

Actuarial Risk Assessment Instruments

 

Although most would agree that the core of the suicide risk assessment is the clinical interview, there are a number of suicide risk assessment questionnaires that have been empirically developed and measure various aspects of suicidality. They are most commonly used to augment the clinical interview. 

 

It is beyond the scope of this course to review all of these measures, but some of the more popular ones in use can be found in the Suicide Risk Assessment Guide (Guide HCO; click here for pdf).  As can be seen, the Table provides the name of the scale, author, information about obtaining a copy of the test, copyright information and fees.  In addition, a summary Table (click here for pdf) shows summary information about each scale such as number of items, cost, population use, etc.  This information can help the clinician decide which type of actuarial assessment might be most appropriate given the particular clinical situation. These instruments should never be used as a stand-alone assessment for suicide risk.  These instruments all have a slightly different focus, and the choice of a test will depend on the unique situation of its use (e.g. inpatient/outpatient, age group, treatment setting, etc.)

 

As discussed by a number of authors (see resources and references), the use of these instruments is probably limited in clinical settings.  There is no consensus on which tool is the most effective.  In addition, none of the scales can predict actual suicide attempts.  Several problems have to be kept in mind as can be seen in Table 11.

 

 

Table 11. Problems with Actuarial Suicide Risk Assessment Tools

 

 

High false-positive rate.  The self-report measures show a notoriously high false-positive rate (identifying individuals as high-risk who are not actually at high risk).  This is likely due to the fact that they have been developed based on large populations (or groups) in which a very small target group is being identified.  This is fine for statistical purposes, but becomes a big problem when applied to the individual.

 

Use of stable variables. These instruments often assess historical variables that are static and do not change with time.  As such, they may underestimate the risk contribution of an acute exacerbation.

 

Predictive validity.  The predictive validity of most of these questionnaires has not been established and is probably low.  Research suggests that the ability to predict suicide based on the summary score (or scores) on these risk assessments is low. 

 

Lack of generalizability.  Information is essentially unknown relative to the generalizability of these instruments.  Many of them have been developed for research purposes or for brief screening tools.  Their validity, when using them across different settings (inpatient/outpatient; long term care, emergency room) and groups (adolescent, geriatric, military, race, gender, psychiatric status) is unknown. 

 

 

Probably the most valuable aspect of most of the actuarial suicide risk assessment tools is the collection of additional, pertinent information that can assist in clinical decision making.  In fact, most experts state that the summary scores obtained on these scales are NOT commonly used in practice to make firm decisions about a person’s risk for suicide.  Rather, the actual content covered in the specific items of the tool themselves is more important than the summary scores or cut-off rules. Given these findings, adding an actuarial tool may enhance and specify the information gained from the clinical interview rather than providing specific decision-making conclusion based on summary scores or cut-offs.

 

What do I do with all this Information?

 

We have now covered the type of information that should be gathered as part of a suicide risk assessment, conceptual issues related to suicide behavior, and actuarial tools that can enhance the process.  The obvious question is, How does the clinician quantify this information and how does it guide decision making?

 

Bryan and Rudd (2006) distinguish baseline risk and acute risk. At baseline risk, the individual is not in a state of acute risk and is asymptomatic relative to imminent suicide risk.  Even though potentiating (or static) risk factors may be present, the patient is at his or her best.  The baseline level is unique to each patient.  In some patients, the baseline may represent a state of chronic high risk.  These patients show a history of multiple attempts along with more potentiating factors.

 

Acute risk (or exacerbation) occurs when other factors trigger a number of risk factors (warning signs) and the patient is at his or her worst.  Acute risk can occur on top of any baseline, including chronic high risk.  Hence, Bryan and Rudd (2006) establish four categories of suicide risk:

 

     Baseline

     Acute

     Chronic high risk

     Chronic high risk with acute exacerbation

 

There is an important reason for these distinctions.  One cannot think of an individual as either “suicidal” or “not suicidal” when assessing and managing these patients.  In contrast, (1) identifiable risk periods occur inconsistently and (2) chronic suicidality complicates any assessment.

 

Taking into account the above conceptualization, suicidality occurs on a continuum. Acute risk increases from non-existent, to mild, to moderate, to severe, and to extreme as intent emerges and becomes clearer in terms of both objective and subjective indicators.  In addition, protective factors will either be minimal (long term) or fade if they had been present.   

 

These concepts have been presented nicely in the Guide and can be seen in the following illustration (Perlman et al., 2011).

 

warning_suicide_600

Figure: Accumulation of Potentiating and Warning Factors

 

The following is adapted from Bryan and Rudd (2006, p. 198).  As illustrated in Table 12, the response by the clinician is directly correlated to the intensity of the risk factors.  In the case of severe or extreme suicide risk, immediate evaluation for inpatient hospitalization is indicated (either voluntary or involuntary).  As discussed by Bryan and Rudd, outpatient management of those at moderate and even severe risk can be accomplished taking into account the recommendations briefly summarized in the Table 12.

 

 

Table 12. Suicide Risk Level and Appropriate Responses

 

 

Risk Level

 

 

Description

 

 

Indicated Response

 

 

Nonexistent

 

 

No identifiable suicide intent or suicidal ideation (SI)

 

 

No change in ongoing treatment

 

 

Mild

 

 

SI of limited frequency, duration, intensity; no plan or intent; mild dysphoria; good control; few risk factors; identified protective factors

 

 

Evaluate SI to monitor risk change

 

 

Moderate

 

 

 

Frequent SI, limited intensity/duration, some specific plans, no intent, good control, limited depression, some risk factors, protective factors present.

 

 

 

Recurrent evaluation of need for hospitalization

 

Increase frequency of visits with frequent reevaluation of treatment plan/goals

 

24-hour availability for emergencies or crisis

 

Consider medication if symptoms worsen or persist

 

Use of telephone contact for monitoring

 

Active involvement of family along with their frequent input about indicators

 

Professional consultation as necessary

 

 

 

Severe

 

 

 

Frequent, intense, enduring SI, specific  plans, no subjective intent but objective markers, access to method; limited preparation; impaired control; severe depression;  multiple risk factors; few protective factors .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immediate evaluation for inpatient hospitalization (voluntary or involuntary depending on situation)

 

Extreme

 

 

Frequent, intense, enduring SI; specific  plans; clear subjective and objective intent;  impaired control; severe depression;  many risk factors; no protective factors .

 

 

A COMMENT ON NO-SUICIDE CONTRACTS

 

Many clinicians were trained to use no-suicide or no-harm contracts as part of their education, and the practice is quite common in clinical settings.  A typical no-suicide contract (NSC) contains the following (see Rudd, Mandrusiak & Joiner, 2006):

 

An explicit statement agreeing not to harm or kill oneself

Specific details about the duration of the agreement

A contingency plan if a crisis that would jeopardize the patient’s ability to honor the agreement

The specific responsibilities of both the patient and clinician

 

Unfortunately, several problems have emerged since their inception in approximately 1973.  One of the biggest problems is that there is no solid scientific evidence that they work.  Although many studies have been done using NSC (see Rudd et al., 2006 for a review), they have primarily looked at the prevalence of use.  Those studies that have attempted to look at utility and effectiveness suffer from serious methodological flaws.  Some of the problems with NSC can be summarized as in Table 13.

 

 

Table 13. Problems with No-Suicide Contracts

 

 

The term “contract” contains a “hidden message” that implies more concern for the medial-legal aspects of the issue rather than the clinical process

 

No scientific proof of effectiveness in preventing suicidal behavior

 

Potentially destructive to the therapeutic relationship

 

May lead to a patient’s concealment of suicidal ideation and behavior

 

May lead to a false sense of security in the clinician

 

Useless as a defense in liability litigation

 

 

The information in Table 14 reviews the current use of no suicide contracts (NSC) and suggests there may be problems with this approach especially in terms of their effectiveness (based on Kroll, 2000; Page and King, 2008). As can be seen, even with NSC in place, a very high percentage of patients “under contract” ultimately commit suicide.

 

 

Table 14. Current Use of No-Suicide Contract and Problems

 

 

Percentage of outpatient therapists using no-suicide contracts 

 

 

83%

 

 

Percentage of therapists with no training in no-suicide contracts 

 

 

43%

 

Psychiatrists who make use of no-suicide contracts  

 

 

57%

 

Percentage of therapists reporting a suicide attempt or death by patients while on a no-suicide contract 

 

 

31%

 

Psychiatrists reporting patients who have attempted or completed suicide after agreeing to a no-suicide contract  

 

 

41%

 

 

Alternatives to the No-Suicide Contract

 

Various authors (see Rudd et al., 2006) have recommended alternatives to the NSC.  The focus of these alternative approaches is on using an agreement (not a “contract”) as a clinical intervention.  One such example is the Commitment to Treatment Statement (CTS).  The CTS is defined as an agreement between the clinician and patient in which the patient makes a commitment to the treatment process and to living by:

 

Identifying the roles, obligations, and expectation of both parties

Communicating openly and honestly about all aspects of treatment

Accessing identified emergency services during periods of crisis

 

The focus of the CTS is a commitment to living by engaging in treatment and accessing emergency care, rather than removing the suicide option. The authors recommend that the CTS always be handwritten and individualized to the patient (rather than a standardized preprinted form). The agreement might also include a timeframe depending upon the patient’s input.  A sample CTS can be found in Table 15 (from Rudd et al., 2006 p. 247).

 

 

Table 15. Example of Commitment to Treatment Statement (CTS)

 

 

I, _______ agree to make a commitment to the treatment process.  I understand this means that I have agreed to be actively involved in all aspects of treatment including:

 

attending sessions (or letting the therapist know when I can’t make it)

setting goals

voicing my opinions, thoughts, and feelings, honestly and openly with my therapist (whether they are negative or positive, but most importantly my negative feelings)

being actively involved during sessions

completing homework assignments

experimenting with new behaviors and new ways of doing things

and implementing my crisis response plan when needed (attached)

 

I also understand and acknowledge that, to a large degree, a successful treatment outcome depends on the amount of energy and effort I make. If I feel treatment is not working, I agree to discuss it with my therapist and attempt to come to a common understanding as to what the problems are and identify potential solutions.  In short, I agree to make a commitment to living.  This agreement will apply for the next three months, at which time it will be reviewed and modified.

 

Signed:__________________

Date:__________

Witness:_________________

 

 

This type of agreement has a very different “feel” than a no-suicide contract.  This “agreement” is focused on the patient and on clinical issues related to treatment.  The CTS provides a line for a “witness” signature and this is often a family member.  This underscores the importance of involving family members in this process whenever possible.  The authors suggest that a copy of the CTS be kept in the chart and one given to the patient.  It can be updated and modified as necessary. 

 

The authors also recommend the use of a crisis response plan (CRP) which provides specific instructions for the patient during a state of crisis (See Table 16). They suggest writing the instructions on a 3 X 5 card so that the patient can carry it.  As an overview, the first part of the CRP involves self-management skills to enhance crisis management and the final steps include external resources.  The therapist should be very specific about what defines a crisis, especially for those who have been chronically suicidal.  The CRP can be modified as treatment progresses.

 

 

Table 16. Crisis Response Plan (CRP)

 

 

When I am acting on my suicidal thoughts by trying to find a gun (or other method to kill myself), I agree to take the following steps:

 

  1. I will try to identify specifically what is upsetting me
  2. Write out and review more reasonable responses to my suicidal thoughts, including thoughts about myself and the future
  3. Review all the conclusions I’ve come to about these thoughts in the past in my treatment log.  For example, that the sexual abuse was not my fault and I don’t have to feel ashamed of it
  4. Try and do the things that help me feel better for at least 30 minutes including ______
  5. Repeat all of the above one more time
  6. If the thoughts continue, get specific, and I find myself preparing to do something, I’ll call the person at ________ (phone number)
  7. If I still feel suicidal and don’t feel like I can control my behavior, I’ll go to the emergency room located at ______, phone number ______

 

 

Suicide Management

 

Much of the information in the following does NOT present a treatment guide to suicide management but rather guides for managing suicidal behavioral within any theoretical treatment orientation.  This course assumes the clinical skills necessary to manage a suicidal patient given the appropriate guides.  Different management strategies are presented, but do tend to coalesce into common themes. 

 

Lee and Bartlett (2005) outline suicide prevention and management strategies in summarizing five critical elements.  These include:

 

 

Table 17. Five Elements in Working with Suicidal Patients

 

 

Thorough assessment of suicide risk

Establishing an appropriate management plan

Involve family members and/or significant others

Consult with other professionals

Implement the plan assuming professional responsibility

 

 

Thorough Assessment of Suicide Risk

 

Much of the course to this point has focused on suicide risk assessment. All of this information is used to develop an appropriate treatment plan and manage the patient in a safe manner.  The previous review has included such “tools” as the clinical interview, suicide risk assessment questionnaires, looking at the medical history, talking with other previous treating professionals, talking with family members, etc.  The Suicide Intent Checklist was designed by the authors for rapid (and ongoing) assessment of likelihood that the patient will engage in suicide behavior.  It is less specific than many of the other guidelines discussed elsewhere but helps to give the clinician an overview of what to be assessing.

 

 

Suicide Intent Checklist

 

 

Does the client express suicidal ideation?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Does the client have a plan?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client identified the means?

 

 

Yes  No

 

Does the client have access to the means?

 

(If “Yes” to Questions 1 through 4, a definite referral for hospitalization is indicated; however, continuing this assessment will provide more information regarding the client’s situation.)

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client expressed a strong desire to die?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Does the client have no fear of dying?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Does the client use alcohol or drugs?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Is there a family history of suicide?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client made previous attempts?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Does the client have an ineffective support system?

 

Yes  No

 

 

Does the client omit references to the future?

 

Yes  No

 

 

Is the client experiencing disorganized thoughts?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Is the client experiencing hallucinations?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client experienced any recent personal losses?

 

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client recently been diagnosed with physical illness?

 

 

Yes  No

 

Is the client experiencing guilt, blame, or shame for personal behavior?

 

Yes  No

 

 

Has the client made any preparations for death (i.e., giving away personal items, making a will, writing a good-bye letter)?

 

Yes  No

 

From Lee and Bartlett (2005, p. 865). Suicide prevention: Critical elements for managing suicidal clients and counselor liability without the use of a no-suicide contract. Death Studies, 29, 847-865.

 

 

In the opinion of these authors, affirmative answers to the first four questions almost automatically dictate a referral for inpatient hospitalization.  As we have seen, more detailed assessment, and implementation of risk management procedures may or may not suggest this action. For a number of reasons (e.g. limited resources, diminished insurance benefits, etc.), inpatient treatment of the suicidal patient has decreased.

 

Establishing an Appropriate Management Plan

 

After completing a suicide risk assessment, a treatment plan is established.  Establishment of the treatment plan takes into account a number of issues gathered during the risk assessment.  It should be noted that risk management is ongoing during treatment.  Some of the treatment possibilities will be discussed subsequently.   Assuming the patient does not require hospitalization the following general guidelines should be considered (Lee and Bartlett, 2005)

 

 

Table 18. Overview of Managing the Suicidal Patient

 

 

Ensuring 24-hour coverage availability including holidays and vacations

Increasing frequency of sessions

Extending session times as necessary

Collaborating with family member and significant others to be involved in treatment

Ensuring the treatment plan is constantly updated

Following up to ensure patient compliance and disposition

Monitoring medication allocation and use

Establishing a check-in system with the patient

 

 

Adapted from (Lee and Bartlett, 2005)

 

 

Involve Family Members and/or Significant Others

 

As will be discussed, allowing family members to control the management of a suicidal patient can result in disastrous results.  However, appropriate involvement of family members can be very important.  In essence, the therapist will literally have one or two hours with the patient every week.  That leaves a lot of hours during the week for suicidal ideation and behavior.  Involving family members extends the accuracy of risk assessment as well as the efficacy suicide management.

 

Consult with Other Professionals

 

It is important to consult with other professionals when managing a suicidal patient.  It is only human for a therapist to become emotionally involved (not in an unethical sense) and this can impact objective clinical decision-making.  As will be discussed, a common therapist mistake is lack of communication with other professionals, under-treating symptoms, and not taking into account the significance of patient communications.  All of these issues can potentially be averted if an objective third party is available for consultation.

 

Implement the Plan Assuming Professional Responsibility

 

Completing a thorough risk assessment and coming up with a reasonable treatment management plan is worthless unless the information is used appropriately. A common mistake among therapists is to not follow through with their treatment plan (to be discussed).  The best laid treatment plan (and risk assessment) is often derailed by such things as allowing the patient to control the therapy, not communicating with other professionals, allowing family members to control treatment, under-treating symptoms, ignoring symptoms “hoping for the best”, etc. (again, all of this will be discussed).  The bottom line is that the therapist is responsible for managing the suicidality appropriate to the standard of care and in the best interest of the patients.  In this process, there is a strong likelihood you will not be the patient’s friend (in fact, they may “hate” you at times).  Even so, achieving the ultimate goal of keeping them alive and achieving therapeutic goals is the end point. 

 

Guides to Assessment and Management of Suicidal Behavioral

 

There are a number of high quality reviews of the literature relative to suicide risk assessment and management including all of the materials listed in Table at the beginning of the course, as well as the resources listed at the end. Much of the information in these guides has been reviewed previously.  In particular, the Air Force Guides (as well as the others) are very comprehensive documents.  The Air Force Guide (hereafter referred to as AFG) has been briefly summarized in the following, but should be reviewed in its entirety for the course (as should all three Guides). As discussed, the Air Force Guide (p. 7) is structured around a set of 18 recommendations under eight chapter headings.  The eight headings form an outline for review of these areas.  The following is some of the information presented in the guide that is applicable to practitioners in a non-military setting.  Much of this overlaps with the other guides which summarize the extant literature in this area.  The eight areas reviewed in the Air Force Guides (AFG) will be used to structure an overview of this area.  Other resources are also included.  The following is an overview and detailed information can be found in the three Guides referenced and the other materials. 

 

Assessment of Suicide Risk

 

The assessment of suicide risk has been covered in detail previously in this course.  In fact, the emphasis on risk assessment is the primary focus of one of the guides (HCO Guide; Perlman et al., 2011). 

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Formally assess suicide risk at initial evaluation and follow-up

 

Use appropriate measures to assess suicidality

 

 

As briefly summarized in the Key Points, it is important to specifically assess for suicidality at the initial evaluation and then every follow-up session (if suicidality has been found to be an issue).  As discussed previously, adequate assessment of suicide risk involves a number of factors and these have been summarized in Tables 6-10.  The details of risk assessment have been reviewed previously and will not be reviewed here.

 

A Decision-Making Framework

 

As discussed previously in this course (See Table 3 for a review), it is important to have agreed-upon terms relative to suicidality. As discussed in the Guides, research suggests that suicide symptomatology fall into two factors: (1) suicidal desire and ideation and (2) resolved plans and preparations.  As stated in the AFG (page 19), “Although suicidal symptoms and indicators from both factors are important, those that fall into the resolved plans and preparation (RPP) factor are indicative of greater risk.” Some of those factors that fall into the RPP factor include

 

Sense of courage to make an attempt

Sense of competence to make an attempt

Availability of means for an attempt

Opportunity to make an attempt

Specificity of plans for an attempt

Preparation for an attempt

Duration of suicidal ideation

Intensity of suicidal ideation

 

The AFG go on to review risk level determination stratified differently for multiple-attempters versus non-multiple attempters (See page 20; this research is based on Joiner et al., 1997; 1999). As stated in the AFG, “Research indicates that persons with two or more suicide attempts are at significantly higher risk for suicide even when there is no acute crisis” (Rudd et al., 2001). Therefore, when determining suicide risk, a lower threshold should be set for those who are multiple attempters.  Once a level of suicide risk is determined, an appropriate intervention and management plan can be established.     Appropriate responses ranging from management on an outpatient basis with recurrent evaluation (mild risk or less) to immediate hospitalization (severe/extreme risk) can be found in Table 12 and the AFG on page 21. 

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Determine suicide risk level and match intervention appropriately

 

 

Outpatient Management Strategies

 

According to the various reviews of the literature, outpatient treatment planning for suicidal patients has been focused on the psychiatric condition and the suicidality has been viewed as a symptom (AFG, p. 22).  Best practices now suggest that the suicidality, or potential for self-harm, be viewed as a primary target of intervention rather than secondary to the psychiatric issues (e.g. depression, personality disorder, etc.).  Once the treatment plan has been established, ensure that you follow it and document your rationale for ongoing decisions (especially any that deviate from the original plan).  One specific way of targeting the suicidal symptoms is through the use of the Crisis Response Plan (CRP, as discussed previously; See Table 16 and AFG, p. 22; A sample CRP can also be found in the AFG Appendices). 

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Specifically target suicidal symptoms and risk factors

Take steps to safeguard the environment: limit access to means of self-harm

Establish ongoing monitoring of suicide risk

Use appropriate management strategies

 

 

Increasingly, suicidal patients are being managed on an outpatient basis.  Whether in the hospital, or in an outpatient treatment environment, it is important to safeguard the environment.  Several steps are suggested in the literature including removal of any firearms, close supervision of medications, addressing use of an impulse-lowering substances, and assessment of all means of self-harm that a patient has seriously contemplated.  The literature acknowledges that it is impossible to limit access to all means of self-harm, but documenting steps to decrease the threat is important.  In many cases, this may need to involve family members or significant others to ensure that a patient has followed through on recommendations.  If the patient is unwilling to allow their participation (or contact), then a contingency treatment plan might include hospitalization if safety cannot be reasonably established.  If a suicidal patient is being managed in the hospital, specific policies and procedures are usually in place. In the special situation of a suicidal patient on a medical floor, please see the course, Working with Medical Patients.  As discussed in the guides, practitioners should have a “usual and customary” method of managing suicidal patients.  This will ensure that appropriate issues are always addressed.

 

Documentation Strategies

 

Documentation issues are discussed in more detail in a subsequent section.  The AFG have a detailed discussion reviewing the literature and providing suggestions for documentation strategies (p. 26). As discussed, “Clinical records are most complete when they document the domains that were assessed related to the suicide, relevant findings, treatment planning specific to the suicide risk factors, and the rationale for decisions made.” (p. 26).  The following content for documentation is recommended as often as is clinically indicated:

 

The patient’s actual statements regarding suicidal thoughts

The content of discussions about risk and safety

Any outside information provided by family members

Any attempts to obtain prior treatment records

All increases in treatment intensity or frequency

Any special precautions taken or arrangements made

Any attempt at voluntary hospital admission

All reasons why hospitalization was rejected as an alternative

After hours arrangements that have been established

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Document such things as risk assessment, rationale for treatment plan and actions, response plan and increased suicidality. 

 

 

As discussed in the AFG (p. 26), “It is recommended that you include a risk assessment section in every initial note and all follow-up notes for patients who are at moderate risk for suicide.”  An example of what might be included in the section can be found in the AFG (p. 26). If a patient is referred to another provider, this must be documented and appropriate follow-up completed to determine that recommendations were followed.

 

Coordination with Inpatient Care

 

Communication among healthcare providers is one of the biggest problems in managing the suicidal patient (or any other patient for that matter). It is recommended that the practitioner attempt to collect information and stay in contact with other providers as appropriate (e.g. get records from past therapists, ongoing treatment with a psychiatrist, other involved parties).  In addition, coordinating with inpatient care is important.  For most practitioners this issue will occur in one of two ways: First, a clinician may have a patient hospitalized on either a voluntary or involuntary basis. In the vast majority of cases for those with primarily outpatient practices, there will be little contact with the patient during the hospitalization (unless you have privileges or get temporary privileges). In this day of managed care and limited resources, hospitalizations for suicidality are brief.  In most cases, the patient is stabilized and when the acute crisis and suicidality resolve, he or she is discharged.  In these cases, the patient will be discharged with a recommendation that they follow up with their primary treating therapist.  Communication with the outpatient therapist can be minimal, at best.  When starting to see a patient again, after hospitalization, it is important to get as much information from the hospital as possible. That is the only way to firmly establish your new “starting point” in therapy.

 

The second situation in which a practitioner might see a patient after hospitalization is referral either from the discharge staff or being selected from some type of Manage Provider Network (MPN).  In this case it is very critical to get information from the hospital about the reason for the hospitalization, the course of treatment, status at discharge, etc.  You will also need information about other resources provided to the patient (or that s/he has available), the benefits of the insurance for outpatient treatment (before officially accepting the case), etc. 

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Establish process for coordination of care when patients are hospitalized

 

Before assuming responsibility for care after discharge, reassess the patient relative to all issues  

 

  

Clinical Support and Peer Consultation

 

If you work in a group treatment setting or HMO model (e.g. Kaiser), clinic support is often readily available.  In addition, the sharing of medical records across providers is much easier. In a solo private practice setting, this is more challenging. The provider should ensure appropriate communication with other parties as necessary. In addition, if you do not have much experience in managing suicidal patients, or if some unique issue occurs in treatment, peer consultation is critical. Of course, document that the consultation occurred, the issues discussed, and the conclusions established.

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Consult with other providers as appropriate

 

Obtain peer consultation as appropriate

 

  

Ensuring Continuity of Care

 

As discussed previously, having a “usual and customary” protocol for managing the suicidal patient is important.  One aspect of this protocol should include how to handle patients that drop out of treatment or refuse to follow treatment recommendations.  As an example, for patients who do not show up for appointments consistently or “disappear” from treatment one might: make three attempts to contact the patient by phone (to address return to treatment, etc.).  If this is not successful, a no-show letter should be sent with appropriate alternatives for the patient (return to treatment, refer to another provider, emergency resources, etc.).  Many of these issues are discussed in the course, Difficult Therapy Termination Issues

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Use a standardized follow-up and referral process for all patients (suicidal or previously suicidal) who drop out of treatment prematurely

 

Ensure treatment coverage for the patient if you are out of town or unavailable

 

Establish a procedure for ensuring continuity of care during provider transitions

 

 

Continuity of care also includes ensuring that there is some type of coverage if the provider is away on vacation, or for some reason is not available on an emergent basis.  This contingency should be discussed with the patient beforehand.

 

Lastly, continuity of care must also be addressed if the patient or therapist is moving or, for some reason, a referral to another provider must be made.  When helping to establish treatment with another provider, every effort must be made to ensure that a professional relationship has been successfully established with the new clinician and all appropriate information provided.  Many of these issues are discussed in the course, Difficult Therapy Termination Issues

 

Links with the Community and Self-help Focus

 

An ongoing focus in the treatment of the suicidal patients is establishing links to the community and activating resources.  One of the issues is after-hours emergencies when the therapist is not available or cannot be immediately located.  The patient should be provided with resources in the community that can be called upon in these situations.  These might include suicide hotlines, community mental health clinics (although these are becoming rarer), and the location of a local emergency department that can handle mental health issues.

 

 

Key Points

 

 

Establish a written plan for after-hours problems

 

Use community support concomitant with treatment and after discharge

 

Emphasize the Collaborative Model and self-help approach

 

 

An ongoing focus of treatment should include connecting the patient with sources of support in the community. In dealing with the suicidal patient, this has been termed a Collaborative Model (Ellis, 2004).  Ellis differentiates between a Therapist Responsibility Model (TRM), Client Responsibility Model (CRM) and the Collaborative Model (CM).  In the TRM, the therapist assumes the role of healer and is viewed as primarily responsible for outcome (p. 42). The TRM is heavily influenced by the medical model in which the clinician does something to the patient to make him or her better.  The patient is often viewed as a more passive recipient in treatment.  In contrast, the CRM model places almost all of the responsibility on the patient.  If he or she does not get better, then there was a lack of taking responsibility for improvement (or being involved in the treatment).  This model is also known as the “blame the victim” approach according to Ellis (p. 44).

 

An alternative to the TRM-CRM dichotomy as discussed by Ellis is the collaborative model (CM).  In the CM, the responsibility for treatment is shared by the clinician and patient.  Questions to be answered throughout treatment include such things as “Have the client and I been truly collaborating?”, “Are we both working hard”, and “Do we both feel responsible for progress”, etc (from Beck, 1993). Ellis (2004) summarizes general principles for the CM process when working with a suicidal patient.  These are summarized as follows:

 

Self-help orientation from day one.  The collaborative mindset should be established with the client from day one (the initial evaluation).  Usually, the initial evaluation involves the clinician asking a lot of questions, and the client providing information.  This often sets the tone of the practitioner being active and the patient being passive.  This approach can easily be modified to include a CM approach. This might include such things as asking the client his or her own assessment of the problem, discuss the client’s ideas for possible remedies, and recommending homework assignments for the client to begin from the outset.  The CM approach can be a treatment philosophy throughout the intervention.

 

Fading directiveness over time. In some cases, the practitioner will have to be more directive in the beginning of treatment due to the client’s inability to be more actively engaged (e.g. the severely depressed). Even so, as the treatment progresses, the shift of responsibility can move to more of one of collaboration.  In making this transition, it is appropriate to involve the patient in the process.  For instance, instead of assigning the patient a book or book chapter to read, discuss with the patient what he or she feels might be realistic to undertake (e.g. a few pages versus a book, etc.).  Using this method, the client is participating not only in the active participation, but also designing how that active participation will take place.  Using this method also increases the likelihood of success.

 

Shifting responsibility for crisis management.  According to the CM approach, the therapist may be highly responsible for crisis management initially, but this also should be faded over time.  As the patient responds to treatment, there should be appropriate encouragement to rely on other resources to manage crises such as coping skills, family relationships, significant others, etc.  Of course, the therapist always remains in the background, if needed. This must be done in an appropriate manner so that the client does not perceive it as any type of abandonment (which it is not).  Rather, it is the client taking more responsibility as appropriate.

 

Transparent agenda. As discussed by Ellis, it is common for a therapist not to share one’s formulation or treatment plan with the client.  This makes it difficult for the client to actively participate (collaborate) in treatment and tends to foster the TRM.  The CM allows for “few if any secrets between therapist and client, in much the same manner that a personal trainer would discuss strengths, weaknesses, and improvement strategies with a fitness client” (Ellis, 2004, p. 48). 

 

Mutual goal-setting and agenda-setting.  Consistent with all of the other tenets of CM, the therapist and client should engage in ongoing goal and agenda-setting.  As reviewed by Ellis, goals can be conceptualized in three categories: therapy goals, session goals (agenda), and mini-contracts.  Setting therapy goals goes beyond the simple conclusion of “help the client get better.”  Setting therapy goals can be fairly involved since those of the therapist and client may differ.  As Ellis points out, some clients want to leave suicide open as an option even with ongoing treatment (whether they are will to specifically mentioned it or not).  This is one reason the Commitment to Treatment approach and Crisis Response Plan has been recommended (as discussed previously) over the no-suicide contract.  Using this approach (versus the NSC) is consistent with CM and avoids the issue of forcing the client overtly having to commit to something that he or she may not actually be accepting. 

 

Establishing session goals at the beginning of each visit is consistent with CM and many other treatment approaches (e.g. CBT) and CM. This method has been found to increase the client’s involvement in the session and decreases the chances at working at cross-purposes. As pointed out by Ellis, simply asking the patient for his or her agenda for the session is not consistent with this approach.  Rather it is a brief collaborative discussion in which the therapist might mention ideas for an agenda and getting the client’s input.  The mini-contracting approach includes a collaborative discussion and agreement on short term interventions (even within-session) and goals.    

 

Coach/trainer model. As discussed by Ellis, most patient/clients enter therapy with the conception of the TRM (based on experiences of being treated by other types of doctors). It is recommended that the client can be reoriented and educated about the CM approach through the use of metaphors.  One such metaphor suggested by Ellis is that of a coach-trainer.  Using this analogy, the client can often understand that the coach (therapist) will provide direction and important resources, but skill acquisition and improvement occur only with active involvement on the part of the student/learner (client). This coach-trainer idea establishes the CM philosophy and approach while contrasting the disease/healer model.  

 

A Special Population:  Geriatric Patients

 

Although all of the risk factors and management guides apply to the geriatric population, this does represent a special group.  The data demonstrate that there is a bimodal distribution to the suicide curve.  The elderly and adolescents are at the highest risk.  About 20% of all successful suicides are completed by men over 65 years old with the greatest risk among those over 69 years old. An interesting but as yet unexplained trend beginning in the 1990’s when managed care became prevalent is the increase in the number of successful suicides in men over 80 years old. 

 

 

Table 19. Successful Suicides in the Elderly – Why?

 

 

Among the reasons that elderly patients (especially men) are more successful when they attempt suicide include the following:

 

     they are less likely to make a “cry for help”

     they have access to potentially harmful (lethal) medications

     they use more lethal means (hanging or gunshot)

     less physically resilient

 

 

About 75% of the elderly who successfully commit suicide had been recently diagnosed with a first episode of major depression which was rated to be only “moderately severe” and a similar number (about 75%) had seen their family doctor within one month of the completed suicide. 

 

 

Table 20. Special Risk Factors for Suicidality in the Elderly

 

 

Presence of mental and/or emotional disorders

Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption

Diminished quality of life

Separation (from family and friends)

Divorce

Recent death of a spouse

Comorbid medical disease rates

Long-term persistent depression and/or anxiety

Being male and Caucasian

 

 

Although all of the risk factors previously discussed apply to the elderly (predisposition to suicide, current factors, protective factors), there are some that are more prevalent.  These are listed in Table 20.  Any clinician working with the elderly should be aware of these characteristics.

 

Among the elderly, detecting suicidality and preventing suicide is more challenging since they may tend to be more reserved about the symptoms (e.g. sharing emotional distress), making a cry for help (e.g.  instrumental suicide-related behavior) and being more serious in their attempts (gunshot, hanging, lethal overdose with no chance of discovery). 

 

When suicidality in an elderly individual is suspected, the special risk factors should be assessed carefully.  Talking with the patient’s family is also important since 60% of individuals who commit suicide have discussed suicidal ideations with family members within the past year. In stark contrast, only 18% discuss their intentions with a healthcare professional. 

 

One of the most important factors is the accurate identification of depression in the elderly. Many healthcare professionals will miss the telltale signs of depression in the elderly (or disregard them), believing they are “normal” signs of aging.  Depression presents differently in the elderly than in other populations.  The elderly individual with depression often presents with fewer mood-related symptoms and instead complains of fatigue, concentration difficulties, diminished memory, and lack of initiative.  In at least one study, depressed patients were more likely to deny sadness and/or lack of pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed. This is referred to as “masked depression” or “nondysphoric depression” (See Table 21). 

 

 

Table 21. Masked Depression the Elderly

 

 

Weight loss

Focus on multiple physical and somatic complaints

Unexplained somatic complaints

Minimizing/denying mood related symptoms

Weakness, Lassitude

Hopelessness, Helplessness

Anxiety, worry, rumination

Memory complaints (with or without objective findings)

Loss of pleasure in activities (anhedonia)

Slowed movement

Irritability

Lack of interest in personal care

 

 

Due to the unusual presentation of depression in the elderly, special assessments have been developed such as the Modified Koenig Depression Scale (See Table 22).  As can be seen, the items are specific to how depression tends to present in the elderly. The Modified Koenig Depression Scale was originally developed on medically ill patients in the Veterans Administration Hospital.  Using an oral presentation format with males and females, the Koenig has been found to have a sensitivity of 100% and a specificity of 85% for detecting depression using DSM criteria. 

   

 

Table 22. Modified Koenig Depression Scale

 

 

Do you often get bored?

Do you often get restless or fidgety?

Do you feel in good spirits?

Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most?

Can you concentrate easily when reading the papers?

Do you prefer to avoid social gatherings?

Do you often feel downhearted and blue?

Do you feel happy most of the time?

Do you often feel helpless?

Do you feel worthless and ashamed about yourself?

Do you often wish you were dead?

 

 

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

Yes   No

 

 

Positive responses are in bold.  Geriatric depression likely if 4 or more are positive.  Scale from Hall, Hall, & Chapman. (2003, p. 41). Identifying geriatric patients at risk for suicide and depression.  Clinical Geriatrics, 11,36-44

 

 

Assessment of the elderly person with depression (and suicidality) should determine whether it is more lifelong (most major depression begins with a first episode in the person’s 30’s) or whether it is late onset.  If the first episode of major depression occurs after age 65 then it is referred to as late-onset or geriatric-onset depression.  This category of depression is well-known in the literature, but is not specifically identified in the DSM.  Late-onset depression has different characteristics than a lifelong pattern and these can be found in Table 23.

 

 

Table 23. Late-Onset Depression: Characteristics

 

 

Major depressive episode after age 65 years old

Increased incidence of psychotic and delusional symptoms (45%)

Less likely to have positive family history of depression

More likely to present with masked depression

Higher frequency of neuroimaging findings

 

 

Treatment

 

Treatment of depression (and suicidality) in the elderly is similar to that with other populations including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or some other psychotherapy interventions, individual/family treatment, and appropriate medications.  In treating the elderly, there are some important issues when choosing an antidepressant.  The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are commonly used.  These medications have shown a low incidence of side effects, few cardiac effects, and are generally effective for treatment of depression in the elderly.  It has been shown that patients who have an actual psychiatric consultation for their depression (for medications) do better. Even with a high rate of mental illness among the elderly, they tend to under utilize mental health services. It is estimated that only 2% of the elderly see a private psychiatrist and only 6% receive any services from community mental health programs.  Reasons for this under-utilization include the stigma of seeing a mental health professional, problems with transportation, and not knowing that the resources are available.  Clinicians working with the elderly in any setting should keep these issues in mind.

 

Suicide in the Patient without Depression

 

The euthanasia program in Oregon provides data relative to a unique population, mostly elderly: those patients who want to die and are not depressed. Part of the physician-assisted suicide program screening is that the patient be free of depression.  Given the unique characteristics of this euthanasia population, the following are reasons given for desiring suicide (See Table 24):

 

 

Table 24. Suicide in Patients without Depression

 

 

Control the circumstances of death

To maintain dignity

A desire to die at home

Being ready to die

The belief that continuing to live is pointless

An inability to engage in pleasurable activities

Poor quality of life 

 

  

Some of this information may be useful in assessing the depressed elderly person.  In the research, psychiatric nurses listed

the following issues as important reasons for patients deciding on euthanasia:  lack of control, loss of independence, pain relief, concern about becoming a burden to one’s family.  Thus, in patients without identified depression, overriding issues of loss of physical function and declining health seemed to be related to suicidality.  Importantly, the patient’s perception of being a burden (and the other issues) were rated as more severe than those of the significant others’ ratings of the same issues.

 

This data is important since it can alert the clinician to other suicidality issues even in patients who do not present with the classic depression symptoms.

 

Learning from our mistakes

 

It is beyond the scope of this course to review all of the clinical methods related to the clinical management of suicidality within the context of treatment.  In fact, beyond assessing and monitoring risk as discussed previously, the treatment intervention can take many forms depending on the therapist’s orientation.  An important question, regardless of treatment orientation is,

 

“What mistakes do therapists make that directly relate to preventing a patient from committing suicide?”

 

In an informative study, Hendin et al. (2006) examined 36 cases of patients who died by suicide while receiving open-ended psychotherapy and medication.  In the study, the therapists of the 36 patients completed a number of questionnaires and wrote detailed narratives about each case.  The therapists then participated in an all-day workshop during which critical problems were identified.  According to the authors, six recurrent problem areas were identified and these are as follows. Each of the problems identified is discussed given the information presented in this course.

 

Lack of Communication between Therapists

 

In nine of the cases a lack of communication between therapists created serious problems.  Twenty-three of the patients had been involved in treatment with another therapist before beginning treatment with the therapist during which they died.  In all of these cases, communication between current and previous therapists was rare.  In three cases, after the patient’s death, a former therapist shared information that might have resolved an impasse in treatment.  In two other cases, the patient was hospitalized just before the suicide.  The lack of communication between the hospital staff and the outpatient therapist resulted in misjudgments about the patient’s suicide risk. 

 

As discussed by the authors, the lack of communication was most striking in four cases.  In these cases, a psychotherapist (social worker or psychologist) was providing treatment concomitantly with a psychiatrist (a very common occurrence).  In one case of a patient being treated concomitantly at the same institution, the psychiatrist and social worker had electronic access to each other’s treatment notes, but did not communicate directly.  The social worker was aware that the patient was not taking his medication and that family problems were worsening.  The patient was encouraged to take his medication and agreed he would not commit suicide while his parents were alive (“he couldn’t do that to them”).  In his last session with the psychiatrist nine days before the patient’s death, he admitted fantasizing about shooting himself.  The psychiatrist considered hospitalizing the patient but accepted his promise that he would not kill himself.

 

The day before the suicide, the patient met with the social worker.  He was distressed about family issues, but continued to state he would not kill himself “while his parents were alive”.  The social worker offered more frequent sessions and telephone support.  The patient killed himself the next day.  During all of this time, the psychiatrist and social worker did not speak directly.

 

Case discussion.  In these cases, it is simply unknown as to how the outcome might have been different if the various providers had engaged in direct communication.  Certainly the potential to prevent a suicide might have been enhanced. Direct discussion with past and current treaters is important to complete all elements of suicide risk assessment and management.  It is also good clinical practice.  Not communicating with others involved in the patient’s care (past and present), could be negligent under many of the “Failure to…” categories discussed previously.

 

Permitting the Patient or Their Relatives to Control Therapy

 

In 17 cases, therapists allowed the patient or the patient’s relatives to control the therapy.  On occasion, suicidal patients will attempt to control the course of therapy using the threat of suicide to do so.  In the study, the authors found that in 3 cases, the patient set certain criteria for living and insisted on the therapist’s support in meeting those conditions. In each of those instances, the therapist complied, believing that doing so was necessary to keep the patient alive and in treatment. 

 

In one case, a man with bipolar disorder agreed not to kill himself if he was successful in opening a business in the next 6 months.  His condition for continuing treatment (and living) was that the therapist help him convince his parents to provide financial support for the business.  The therapist agreed and several treatment sessions included the parents. Although the parents agreed, several problems occurred and the business did not open on schedule.  The patient became very agitated and distressed, and the therapist suggested hospitalization.  The patient declined but “agreed to think about it”.  The therapist did not take any further action.  The patient hanged himself that night.

 

In two cases, the patients subtly exerted control by continually alluding to various topics during the course of therapy and then refused to discuss them.  Since the patients were potentially suicidal, the therapists accepted this behavior to avoid upsetting them.  In 9 cases, the patients determined whether and in what amounts they would take their medication.  The lack of adequate medication treatment seriously compromised the therapy, but the therapists continued, feeling they had no choice. In 3 inpatient cases, relatives were allowed to control critical aspects of the treatment that likely compromised suicide assessment and management.  In one case, a patient was given a day pass after the therapist was pressured by a family member.  The patient killed himself while out on pass.  In two cases, after pressure from family members, the patients’ discharged planning was accelerated against the therapists’ better judgment.  Both patients killed themselves in the hospital just before discharge.

 

Case discussion.  In these cases, the patients and family members were allowed to control critical aspects of the suicide risk assessment, management, and overall treatment.  Even with the best understanding of suicide risk assessment and management, unless adequate implementation is completed, the data is worthless.  When patients and family members attempt to control treatment in a deleterious fashion, it most often represents acting out of the pathology in question.  The therapist in these situations (especially the patient wants to control treatment “or else…..”) should definitely seek outside consultation, keep one’s focus on the established assessment and treatment methods, and decide when the patient is simply not willing to commit to treatment (see the course on Difficult Therapy Termination Issues related to patient’s responsibility in treatment).

 

Therapist Avoidance of Issues Related to Sexuality

 

In 7 of the cases, issues related to sexual conflict were clearly avoided by the therapists.  The issues largely involved patients’ ambivalence and conflicts about homosexuality.  In most of the cases, the therapists were aware of the issues, but they were rarely specifically brought up and addressed in the therapy. In one case, a never-married man in his late 30’s with major depressive disorder, suicidal ideation, avoidant personality disorder, and substance abuse was receiving therapy for long-standing conflict about homosexual behavior (he was raised by repressive, Catholic parents).  The patient had several homosexual encounters in his 20’s but was currently searching personal ads for a girlfriend, which was not successful.  He discussed in therapy that a co-worker often teased and humiliated him which was “enraging.”  The therapist believed the co-worker was implying the patient was homosexual, but the patient refused to discuss it in therapy and the therapist did not pursue it.  During what was ultimately to be his last session, the patient came in angry and refused to sit down.  Standing at the door, the patient announced that he was “fed up” and “finished” with work and therapy and was “getting out now.”  The therapist urged the patient to discuss what had happened but the patient refused, left the session, and stated that he would see her next week.  He killed himself the next day.

 

Case discussion.  The case discussed in detail represents one of what appears to be a chronic baseline risk due to the number of potentiating risk factors (see Tables 6 and 12).  In treating a patient with these baseline potentiating factors (static), one must always be aware of a rapid emergence of warning signs or entering an acute exacerbation state.  In this case we do not know if the patient ever overtly expressed suicidal ideation (possible “hidden ideator”), however there were many other identifiable risk factors.  We also do not know if these were specifically assessed or monitored by the therapist.  The patient’s behavior at the last session, especially given all of the potentiating factors, would represent a rapid emergence of multiple warning signs.     

 

Ineffective or Coercive Actions Resulting from the Therapist’s Anxiety

 

In 11 of the cases, the therapist’s anxiety over the possibility of suicide interfered with their ability to treat their patients effectively.  In three of the cases, the patients made their intent to commit suicide clear, but the therapists felt unable to intervene or seek consultation.  In 5 cases, the patients expressed suicidal intent and the therapists suggested hospitalization but left the decision to the patient.  In each case, the patient rejected the suggestion and committed suicide shortly thereafter. 

 

In three other cases, the therapists’ anxiety led to actions that were harmful to treatment.  In one example, presented in the article, a man had been hospitalized for over a year for major depressive disorder and avoidant personality disorder without improvement.  He demanded ECT treatment and attempted to electrocute himself on more than one occasion. In response, a frustrated treatment team had him sign a contract to stop the behavior and threatened early discharge.  The patient overtly complied.  To reward his compliance he was allowed to go on a staff-supervised outing from which he escaped and killed himself.  After the patient’s death, a note in the chart revealed that the patient had told a staff member that his compliant behavior had been an act.  The contract and threat of early discharge caused the patient to suppress his frustration over his lack of treatment and set up a power struggle which the patient “won” by committing suicide.

 

Case discussion.  In the first cases discussed in this section, the therapists apparently did not take appropriate action even when it was clearly indicated.  When suicidality reaches the severe to extreme level (see Table 12), immediate evaluation for inpatient hospitalization is indicated (either voluntary or involuntary).  In these cases, the decision is not left to the patient. 

 

In the case discussed in detail, some of the problems related to no-suicide contracts are portrayed (as discussed previously).  In this case, the contract seemed to act as a blockade to the patient being able to discuss his frustration over his lack of progress in treatment.  One wonders how this case might have been turned out if a therapeutic risk management approach had been taken along with a commitment to living (treatment) agreement rather than a “contract” and threat of early discharge.  This last case also underscores the previous discussion about lack of communication.  Even though, charted (as discovered after the patient’s death), one wonders how the case might have been managed if the staff knew the patient was simply complying overtly.  

 

Not Recognizing the Meanings of Patients’ Communications

 

In 9 of the cases, the meanings of the patients’ communications were not recognized by the therapists.  In one case that exemplifies the problem, a therapist was working with a middle-aged man with a history of bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation who became intensely anxious and unable to function socially or at work.  The patient called his therapist to tell her that he had accidently taken a double dose of his medication.  He asked her if she thought he had made an inadvertent suicide attempt.  She assured him that he had not.  He killed himself later that week.  In retrospect, the patient’s question was communicating an increased preoccupation with suicide that was left unaddressed.

 

Case discussion.  The case presented in detail again underscores the importance of assessing potentiating risk factors that establish a suicide risk baseline.  Against this “baseline” all future “warning signs” or acute exacerbations can be judged.  As discussed in this course, patients will not always present a clean set of data indicating that an acute phase is being entered.  However, any small warning sign can signal the therapist to immediately and directly assess other risk factors.  In this case, if the therapist had accepted the patient’s conclusion that it might have been an “inadvertent” suicide attempt, more aggressive assessment of warning signs might have been completed along with appropriate intervention.    

 

Untreated or Undertreated Symptoms

 

In 17 cases, the patient exhibited major symptoms related to substance abuse, anxiety, and/or psychosis, but these problems were not adequately addressed in treatment.  As the authors point out, the most striking example was 11 patients who had active substance abuse problems which were not treated.  In 15 cases, the patient’s intense anxiety in the period preceding the suicide was not adequately treated.  In 3 other cases, the patients presented with clear psychotic symptoms that were either undiagnosed or untreated.  

 

Case discussion.  In all of these cases, one wonders what the outcome might have been if a suicide risk assessment had been completed along with appropriate monitoring.  The presence of substance abuse (active) is always a concern given the lowered impulse control.  It also appears that the emergence of “intense anxiety” may not have been adequately assessed and treated as it was a prodrome to acute exacerbation of suicidality. 

 

 

These cases exemplify what can happen if suicidality is not assessed and managed properly.  As Hendin et al. (2006, p. 70) point out,

 

“Therapists’ fear that a patient may commit suicide frequently impeded their ability to deal effectively with the danger.  Paradoxically, we have found that therapists who recognized that a patient was in suicide crisis are often shocked when the patient actually kills himself or herself suggesting that some therapists deal with that anxiety by denying that what seems possible, or even likely, could actually happen.”    

 

Documentation

 

The level of suicide risk should be clearly documented along with information to support this assertion. There is no “gold-standard” in terms of this type of documentation; however, the suicide risk assessment should address important variables as outlined in Table 6 and the protective factors as outlined in Table 10, along with the clinician’s reasoning supporting treatment decision-making (Table 12).  Any methods used to complete this assessment should be documented such as clinical interview, suicide risk questionnaires, interviews with family members, discussions with other treaters, etc.  The documentation should also include a discussion of baseline suicide risk factors (or “predisposing” or static variables) along with acute symptoms (warning signs) that may or may not be present.  It is also important to document protective factors since these will tend to attenuate the suicide risk and are often the focus of ongoing treatment. 

 

The following case examples demonstrate documentation for suicidality in mild risk and severe risk cases.  The format has been adapted from Bryan and Rudd (2006).

 

Case example of mild risk. This is a 55 year old male construction worker who was injured on the job approximately 10 years ago.  He had always been a hard worker, being in the field for over 25 years prior to his injury.  He continued to work after the injury until a spine surgery.  He has been totally disabled for the past 8 years due to back pain.  He is married with two children.  His wife has had to return to work to help support the family.  The patient lost his home due to financial problems.  He has been battling various agencies to get approved for disability support.  His previous suicide behavior (5 years ago) occurred in response to being turned down for various treatments and disability support.  He had no psychiatric history prior to the injury but has been in treatment for depression since then.

 

 

Table 25. Example of Documentation – Mild Risk

 

 

Risk Category:  Some Chronic Risk Factors with Mild Risk Level

 

Acute Risk Indicators:

 

SI is frequent but limited intensity/duration

SI in response to identifiable situational stressors

(turned down for disability for second time; plans on appealing)

Some ideas about a plan but nothing specific

No intent; No availability of lethal means (gun, prescription meds)

Good current self-control

Alcohol use 1 time per week, 1-2 ounces

Mild, transient dysphoria

 

Predisposing/Chronic/Static:

 

Previous outpatient treatment for depression with medication

History of instrumental suicide-related behavior

(two occasions over 5 years ago; alleged overdose of OTC medications in front of significant others; taken to ER and released on both occasions; no involuntary hold)

Chronic pain and disability after a work injury 10 years ago

Ongoing financial distress

Loss of work identity and ability to support family

 

Protective Factors:

 

Strong social support (family, church group)

Patient actively involved in treatment

No history of substance use

Beginning to become involved in volunteer activities

 

Severity Rating: (0-10) = 5

 

Treatment Plan:

 

Patient agreed to, and signed, a Commitment to Treatment Statement

Patient agreed to Crisis Response Plan

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy initiated focusing on enhancing protective factors.  Treatment will also include involvement of family members.

 

 

Case example of severe risk. The patient in Table 24 is adapted from Bryan and Rudd (2006).  This is a 46 year-old twice divorced female who is in her third marriage which she describes as “happy” (or “…at least better than the first two”).  She currently works part-time and cares for her two teenage children (one from each previous marriage). She has a long history of an eating disorder (currently active) and a history of being sexually abused as a child by an uncle.  She has a history of suicide attempts (three occasions before 25 years old by overdose) but she never told anyone. She constantly “worries” and feels guilty about the eating disorder and abuse history. Stress includes work and family.  She feels “worthless” and like she will “never live up to her potential.”  She drinks alcohol and smokes marijuana to help with her stress.  Her social support is minimal outside of her immediate family.  She has a very strained relationship with her family of origin and little contact with them.  She revealed that her husband keeps a gun in the house “for protection.” When asked about a plan, she was vague but stated that, “if things become too bad, I could just shoot myself.” The patient has never had contact with a mental health professional.       

 

 

Table 26. Example of Documentation – Severe Risk

 

 

Risk Category:  Chronic High Risk Factors with Acute Exacerbation

 

Acute Risk Indicators:

 

SI is frequent but limited intensity/duration

SI increases in response to identifiable situational stressors

Some ideas about a plan along with some specificity

No expressed intent currently but availability of lethal means (gun)

Diminished self-control with impulse lowering substances

Admits to daily alcohol use (2-3 ounces, reported)

Moderate dysphoria (reported)

Ongoing eating disorder with guilt

 

Predisposing/Chronic/Static:

 

History of three suicide attempts

(three occasions before 25 years old by overdose – never told anyone)

Social support network very limited

Family and work stress (fluctuates but currently acute)

History of abuse

Eating disorder

Personality features

 

Protective Factors:

 

No significant protective factors identified

 

Severity Rating: (0-10) = 10

 

Treatment Plan:

 

Given the alcohol use and the availability of a gun, this represents an emergent situation.  Even though the patient acknowledged she was not currently feeling like she would act on the SI (explicit or subjective intent low), the implicit or objective intent is significant.  The gun issue must be addressed immediately in terms of getting it out of the house.  This might be done by contacting her husband and insuring this is done (immediately).  Just having the patient “promise” to ask her husband to remove would not be adequate.

 

Before leaving the initial session, (after her husband was contacted about removing the gun and informed of the situation), the patient agreed to, and signed, a Commitment to Treatment Statement.  Also, a Crisis Response Plan was developed.  The patient’s husband was supportive of the treatment.

 

After the home environment is made safer, she may be managed on an outpatient basis with frequent contact (“least restrictive”) depending on other issues and the course of treatment.  Hospitalization should always be an option.

 

As part of the outpatient treatment, she might be referred for medication consultation (for dysphoria and agitation), substance detoxification, and involvement of her husband in the treatment.  Mobilization of any social support systems would be critical. 

 

 

Summary and Conclusions

 

The following Table summarizes some of the important issues in suicide risk assessment and management.  Using a therapeutic risk management approach, suicidal risk assessment and management is integrated into good clinical care.

 

 

Table 27.  Summary of Suicide Risk Assessment and Management

 

 

Know the Risk Factors of Suicidal Patients.  Clinicians must know what the literature says about suicidal risk factors to exercise sound clinical judgment.  These include such things as potentiating risk factors, warning signs, acute signs, explicit and implicit intent, chronic baseline levels of risk, protective factors, etc.

 

Obtain Risk Assessment Data and Adequate History.  A thorough clinical assessment of elevated suicidal risk must be completed consistent with evidence based research and the standard of care.  Guidelines such as those reviewed in this course and found in the resources should be followed.  Suicide risk should be re-assessed on a regular basis.

 

Determine Diagnostic Impression.  Be sure and provide an accurate diagnosis consistent with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).  Resist the temptation to “underdiagnose” as this is legally risky and not an advisable risk management procedure.

 

Involve the Family.  It is often important to involve the patient’s family in the evaluation and treatment process.  If appropriate, family involvement can increase the effectiveness of the intervention and protect the clinician from litigation.

 

Document, Document, Document.  There is a saying in legal circles that, “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen”. Be sure and document interactions, consultations, professional judgments and the “why’s and why not’s” in treatment decision-making.

 

Consult and Communicate.  If necessary, one should consult with colleagues who have experience with suicidal patients. Be sure and communicate with any practitioners who have treated the patient in the past or are doing so concurrently. 

 

Determine Your Competence.  Be aware of your own proficiency in working with a suicidal patient.  Take whatever steps are necessary to ensure adequate evaluation, treatment and follow through with the patient (e.g. consult, on-going education, refer).

 

Don’t Let Patients Control Your Better Judgment.  As was seen in the study looking at likely therapists mistakes in suicide risk and management, allowing patients and relatives to control the treatment was not uncommon.  It is important to follow through appropriately regardless of attempted coercion by others.

 

Know Legal and Ethical Responsibilities.  Being familiar with legal and ethical responsibilities helps the clinician recognize risk before it becomes liability.  We also recommend using the concept of “therapeutic risk management” so that risk management is done within a therapeutic context.  

 

 

If a practitioner determines a patient to be suicidal, precautionary measures such as involuntary or voluntary commitment for observation may have to be invoked; although, in some cases, using sound clinical judgment, the suicidal patient may be most appropriately managed on an outpatient basis. As long as the standard of care is commensurate with community standards and the treatment decision is in the best interests of the patient, there would be no grounds for negligence if the patient is treated in the “least restrictive” environment and appropriate suicide risk management is ongoing. 

 

Resources

 

Suicide Risk Assessment Guide Ontario Hospital Association. (2011; 122 pages)

 

American Psychiatric Association (2003). Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Treatment of Patients With Suicidal Behaviors  (123 pages).

 

Stop a Suicide (stopasuicide.org)

 

American Association of Suicidology (suicide.org).

 

VA/DOD Clinical Practice Guideline for Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide

 

Air Force Guide for Managing Suicidal Behavior: Strategies, Resources, and Tools (or here)

 

Air Force Guide For Managing Suicidal Behavior: Appendices (or here)

 

REFERENCES

 

American Psychiatric Association (2003). Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Treatment of Patients With Suicidal Behaviors. Washington, D.C.  (123 pages).

 

Antony, M. M., & Barlow, D. H. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of assessment and treatment planning for psychological disorders.  New York: The Guilford Press.

 

Bryan, C.J. and Rudd, M.D. (2006).  Advances in the assessment of suicide risk.  Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 62, 185-200.

 

Chambless, D. L., & Ollendick, T. H. (2001). Empirically supported psychological interventions: controversies and evidence.  Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 685-716.

 

Ellis, T.E. (2004). Collaboration and a self-help orientation in therapy with suicidal clients. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 34, 41-57.

 

Hall, RCW, Hall, RCW, & Chapman, MJ. (2003). Identifying geriatric patients at risk for suicide and depression.  Clinical Geriatrics, 11, 36-44.

 

Hendin, et al. (2006). Problems in Psychotherapy with Suicidal Patients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 67-72.

 

Kroll, J. (2000). Use of no-suicide contracts by psychiatrists in Minnesota.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1684-1686.

 

Lee, J.B. and Bartlett, M.L. (2005). Suicide prevention: Critical elements for managing suicidal clients and counselor liability without the use of a no-suicide contract.  Death Studies, 29, 847-865.   

 

Nathan, P. E., & Gorman, J. M.  (Eds.). (2002). A guide to treatments that work, 2nd ed.  New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Oordt, M.S. et al. (2009). Training mental health professionals to assess and manage suicidal behavior: Can provider confidence and practice behaviors be altered? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 39, 21-32.

 

Page, S.A. and King, M.C. (2008). No-suicide agreements: current practices and opinions in a Canadian urban health region. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 53, 169-176.

 

Perlman et al. (2011). Suicide Risk Assessment Inventory: A Resource Guide for Canandian Health Care Organizations.  Toronto, ON: Ontario Hospital Association and Canadian Patient Safety Institute.

 

Rudd, M.D. (2008). Suicide warning signs in clinical practice.  Current Psychiatry Reports, 10, 87-90.

 

Rudd, et al. (2006).  Warning signs for suicide: Theory, research, and clinical applications.  Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 36, 255-262.

 

Shea, C.S. (1998).  Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding.  Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders.

 

Simon, R.I. (2006).  Suicide risk assessment: Is clinical experience enough?  The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 34, 276-278.

 

Smith, A.R. et al. (2008).  Revisiting impulsivity in suicide: Implications for civil liability of third parties.  Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 26, 779-797.

 

Thyer, B.A., & Wodarski, J.S.  (2007).  Social work in mental health: An evidence based approach.  New York: Wiley.

 

 

 

 



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