Cases That Test Your Skills

Is this adolescent suicidal? Challenges in pediatric inpatient consultation-liaison

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Directly asking Ms. S if she had thoughts of harming herself may have been too frightening or guilt-provoking for an adolescent with her background. Asking about passive expression of suicidal ideation would have been more culturally appropriate. For example, asking, “Do you wish that God would let you die?”12 may have elicited more meaningful clinical information about Ms. S’s emotional state and possibly suicide risk.

Furthermore, Ms. S’s identification of coping strategies (ie, “just deal with it”) may have sounded limited to a Western clinician, but this may have been consistent with cultural norms of emotional expression of limiting complaints.4 Also, among Arab Americans, psychiatric symptoms often are expressed through somatization.7,14 Expressing psychological pain through physical symptoms appears protective against public stigma. Public image and opinion is important, and behaviors that would reflect well to others are dictated by the family. These attitudes, beliefs, and values likely impact how Ms. S presented her psychological concerns.

The authors’ observations

Although inpatient hospitalization was initially considered, it was not pursued due to denial of past and current suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, the lack of comorbidity, age-appropriate functioning, and a supportive family environment. Similarly, due to the absence of acute psychiatric symptoms, partial hospitalization was not pursued. The C-L team evaluated treatment options with extreme caution and sensitivity because recommending the wrong treatment option could have deleterious effects on Ms. S and her family’s life. If inpatient hospitalization had been pursued, it could have likely caused the family unnecessary suffering and could have negatively affected familial relationships. Strong feelings of shame, betrayal, and guilt would be intensified, impairing the family’s cohesion, removing environmental and family supports, and putting Ms. S at further risk of developing more severe symptoms of low mood.

Although there were significant concerns about making the wrong recommendation to the family, the C-L team’s highest priority was Ms. S’s safety. Despite cultural concerns, the team would have recommended hospitalization if Ms. S’s clinical picture had warranted this decision.

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