Hard Talk

The cult of the suicide risk assessment


Suicide is not a trivial matter – it upends families, robs partners of a loved one, prevents children from having a parent, and can destroy a parent’s most cherished being. It is not surprising that societies have repeatedly made it a goal to study and reduce suicide within their populations.

The suicide rate in the United States is trending upward, from about 10 per 100,000 in 2000 to about 15 per 100,000 in more recent reports. The increasing suicide rates have been accompanied by increasing distress among many strata of society. From a public health level, analysts are not just witnessing increasing suicide rates, but a shocking rise in all “deaths of despair,”1 among which suicide can be considered the ultimate example.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

On an individual level, many know someone who has died of suicide or suffered from a serious suicide attempt. From the public health level to the individual level, advocacy has called for various interventions in the field of psychiatry to remedy this tragic problem.

Psychiatrists have been firsthand witnesses to this increasing demand for suicide interventions. When in residency, the norm was to perform a suicide risk assessment at the time of admission to the hospital and again at the time of discharge. As the years passed, the new normal within psychiatric hospitals has shifted to asking about suicidality on a daily basis.

In what seems to us like an escalating arms race, the emerging standard of care at many facilities is now not only for daily suicide risk assessments by each psychiatrist, but also to require nurses to ask about suicidality during every 8-hour shift – in addition to documented inquiries about suicidality by other allied staff on the psychiatric unit. As a result, it is not uncommon for a patient hospitalized at an academic center to receive more than half a dozen suicide risk assessments in a day (first by the medical student, at least once – often more than once – by the resident, again by the attending psychiatrist, then the social worker and three nurses in 24 hours).

Dr. Jason Compton, University of California, San Diego

Dr. Jason Compton

One of the concerns about such an approach is the lack of logic inherent to many risk assessment tools and symptom scales. Many of us are familiar with the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to assess depression.2 The PHQ-9 asks to consider “over the last 2 weeks, how often have you ...” in relation to nine symptoms associated with depression. It has always defied reason to perform a PHQ-9 every day and expect the answers to change from “nearly every day” to “not at all,” considering only 1 day has passed since the last time the patient has answered the questions. Yet daily, or near daily, PHQ-9 scores are a frequently used tool of tracking symptom improvement in response to treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy, performed multiple times a week.

One can argue that the patient’s perspective on how symptomatic he or she has been over the past 2 weeks may change rapidly with alleviation of a depressed mood. However, the PHQ-9 is both reported to be, and often regarded as, an objective score. If one wishes to utilize it as such, the defense of its use should not be that it is a subjective report with just as much utility as “Rate your depression on a scale of 0-27.”

Similarly, many suicide scales were intended to assess thoughts of suicide in the past month3 or have been re-tooled to address this particular concern by asking “since the last contact.”4 It is baffling to see a chart with many dozens of suicide risk assessments with at times widely differing answers, yet all measuring thoughts of suicide in the past month. Is one to expect the answer to “How many times have you had these thoughts [of suicide ideation]? (1) Less than once a week (2) Once a week ...” to change between 8 a.m. and noon? Furthermore, for the purpose of assessing acute risk of suicidality in the immediate future, to only consider symptoms since the last contact – or past 2 weeks, past month, etc. – is of unclear significance.


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