Conference Coverage

Make teen suicide screenings a part of everyday practice



Screenings for preteen and adolescent suicide are essential to incorporate into daily clinical practice, Paula Cody, MD, MPH, emphasized at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

An estimated 2 million teenagers, aged 15-19 years, have attempted suicide within the past year, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC’s 1991-2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, nearly a third of students (30%) have felt so sad or helpless nearly daily for at least 2 weeks that they stopped doing their normal activities, and 18% had seriously considered suicide within the past year. One in seven (15%) had made a plan for attempting suicide, 9% had attempted suicide at least once, and 3% attempted suicide that required medical treatment. About twice as many females as males had considered, planned, and/or attempted suicide.

A doctor taking notes with a young male patient
Screening first involves identifying risk factors, said Dr. Cody, the medical director of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The teens at highest risk were those who had made prior suicide attempts, followed by those with psychiatric disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and eating disorders. The LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) population and those with a family history of psychiatric illness and suicide also have a higher risk.

“The offspring of suicide attempters have a sixfold higher risk of suicide than their peers whose parents have not attempted suicide,” Dr. Cody said. Other major risk factors include a history of being bullied, a history of abuse, and a history of substance abuse, particularly alcohol and opioids.

Once you identify a patient at risk for suicide, Dr. Cody advised that you should follow a suicide assessment management protocol, such as the one developed by Angela Stanley, PsyD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, both in Milwaukee. Doctors should identify the teen’s intensity of suicidal ideation, ask how far they are in their plans, ascertain their access to means, create a safety plan, refer the patient for mental health care, and follow up frequently.

Dr. Cody emphasized that “suicide contracts” and “safety plans” are different things. Suicide pacts are agreements not to hurt oneself, whereas safety plans include concrete, collaborative, proactive steps a person will take if experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“There is no evidence that contracts prevent suicide, but a lot of research shows that safety or crisis plans are much more effective at preventing a person from committing suicide,” Dr. Cody stated.

The first step of screening is asking a patient directly whether they have ever wished they were dead or had thoughts about killing themselves.

“Some pediatricians are afraid to ask the questions because they’re afraid they’re going to put the idea of suicide in the child’s head, but there is no evidence that screening puts kids at risk,” Dr. Cody said. The other reason you may feel uneasy asking about self-harm is not knowing what to do if a teen says that she is feeling suicidal. That’s where an assessment protocol helps.

If a patient has considered suicide more than a month prior, it shouldn’t be ignored, although the situation may require less urgency but further follow-up. For those with more recent suicidal ideation but without a plan or intent, Dr. Cody recommends following up within 2 weeks because the adolescent’s situation may change.

For those with suicidal ideation and a plan, you should ask three questions:

  • What ways of killing yourself have you thought about?
  • How likely is it you will follow through on your plan?
  • When you think about killing yourself, what stops you?

These questions can help you determine risk acuity: The more specific, realistic, available, and lethal a plan is, the more acute the risk. You then should ask questions to try to determine how likely the teen is to follow through, such as asking about his future plans, his connectedness with others, and his religious beliefs.

Asking about a plan helps determine how much access the patient has to a lethal, realistic means. Firearms are responsible for 52% of teen suicides, followed by hanging/suffocation (25%) and poisoning (16%).

“This is why it’s a really important part of social history to screen for guns in the house,” Dr. Cody told attendees. “I know it’s been really controversial, but it’s something that’s really important, especially if you have an adolescent in the house that’s having suicidal ideation.”

Teens with suicidal ideation and a plan but no intent require a safety plan along with follow-up within 1 week. Those with a plan and intent, or those with no intent but an unwillingness agree to a safety plan, should be immediately hospitalized, Dr. Cody said.

These suicide screenings should occur at annual well-child visits, Dr. Cody said, but they also should be done at acute visits; basically, any time you see your preteen and adolescent patients. Ideally, these should take place during alone time, without any parents present.

You also should share resources with your patients, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and the Crisis TextLine at 741741.

Dr. Cody reported having no disclosures, and no external funding was used for the presentation.

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