Overcoming barriers to suicide screening in primary care
Given the high prevalence of suicide and its link to so many other risks for youth, screening in primary care can send the message that suicide screening “really is a part of health care,” Dr. Campo said. Incorporating screening into primary care also can help overcome distrust of behavioral health specialists in the general public and stigma associated with behavioral health disorders.
Primary care screening emphasizes the importance and credibility of mental health and challenges attitudinal barriers to care, he said.
At the same time, however, he acknowledged that providers themselves often are uneasy about addressing behavioral health. Therefore, “having the guideline and the expectation [of suicide risk screening] really drives home the point that this needs to be integrated into the rest of primary care,” he said. “It’s also consistent with the idea of the medical home.” With suicide the second leading cause of death among youth, “if there’s anything that we’re going to be thinking about screening for, one would think suicide would be high on the list.”
In fact, observational evidence has shown that educating and training primary care providers to recognize people with depression or a high risk for suicide can reduce suicide attempts and the suicide rate, Dr. Campo said (). It also can help with the mismatch between where at-risk patients are and where behavioral health specialists are. About 90% of behavioral health specialists work only in specialty settings, and only 5% typically work in general medical settings, he said. Yet “most people who are in mental distress or in crisis don’t present in specialty behavioral health settings. They present in general medical settings.”
More data are needed to demonstrate more definitively whether and how much suicide risk screening changes outcomes, but we know a few things, Dr. Campo said, summing up his key points: “We know suicide’s a major source of mortality in youth that’s been relatively neglected in pediatric health care. Second, we know that suicide risk is associated with risk for other important causes of death, for mental disorders, and for alcohol and substance use.
“We know that most suicide decedents are unrecognized prior to the time of death, and those who are recognized often are not treated. We know that the majority of suicide deaths occur on the very first attempt. We also know that we increasingly have treatments, mental disorders that can be identified, and remediable risk factors, and [that at-risk youth] typically present at general medical settings. Beyond that, focusing on the general medical setting has both conceptual and practical advantages as a site for really helping us to detect patients at risk and then managing them.”
No funding was used for the presentations. Dr. Horowitz and Dr. Campo had no relevant financial disclosures.