Suicide screening crucial in pediatric medical settings


Screening youth to identify those at risk for suicide is particularly important in medical settings, given the increasing rates of adolescent suicide, and screening can take as little as 20 seconds, according to Lisa Horowitz, PhD, MPH, a staff scientist and clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Md.

A teenaged girl talks to a doctor Steve Debenport/Getty Images

But clinicians need to use validated screening instruments that are both population specific and site specific, and they need practice guidelines to treat patients screening positive.

Currently, many practitioners use depression screens – such as question #9 on suicide ideation and self harm on the Patient Health Questionnaire for Adolescents (PHQ-A) – to identify suicide risk, but preliminary data suggest these screens often are inadequate, Dr. Horowitz said. Just one question, especially one without precise language, does not appear to identify as many at-risk youths as more direct questions about suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

A Pathways to Clinical Care suicide risk screening work group therefore designed a three-tiered clinical pathway for suicide risk screenings in emergency departments, inpatient care, and outpatient primary care. It begins with the Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ), which takes about 20 seconds and was specifically developed for pediatric patients in the emergency department and validated in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

Dr Horowitz, also the lead principal investigator for development of the ASQ, currently is leading six National Institute of Mental Health studies to validate and implement the screening tool in medical settings. She explained the three-tiered system during a session on youth suicide screening at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Baltimore this year.

If a patient screens positive on the ASQ, a trained clinician should conduct a brief suicide safety assessment (BSSA), which takes approximately 10 minutes, Dr Horowitz said. Those who screen positive on the BSSA should receive the Patient Resource List and then be referred for a full mental health and safety evaluation, which takes about 30 minutes. Resources, such as nurse scripts and parent/guardian flyers, are available at the NIMH website, as well as translations of the ASQ in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Acknowledging the importance of suicide screening

During the same session, John V. Campo, MD, an assistant dean for behavioral health and professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at West Virginia University in Morgantown, discussed why suicide risk screening is so crucial in general medical settings. As someone who trained as a pediatrician before crossing over to behavioral health, he acknowledged that primary care physicians already have many priorities to cover in short visits, and that the national answer to most public health problems is to deal with it in primary care.

“Anyone who has done primary care pediatrics understands the challenges involved with screening for anything – particularly when you identify someone who is extensively at risk,” he said.

But suicide has a disproportionately high impact on young populations, and “identifying youth at risk for suicide identifies a group of young people who are at risk for a variety of threats to their health and well-being,” he said.

For youth aged 10-19 years in 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death behind accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2018 Jun;67[4]:1-16). In fact, accidents, suicide, and homicide account for three-quarters of deaths among youth aged 10-24 years (Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2019 Jun;68[6]:1-77), yet it’s typically the other 25% that most physicians trained for in residency.

“Suicide kills more kids than cancer, heart disease, infections – all kinds, sepsis, meningitis, pneumonia, influenza, HIV, respiratory conditions. Suicide kills more young people every year than all of that [combined],” Dr. Campo said. “And yet, when you walk through a modern emergency department, we see all these specialized programs for those who present with physical trauma or chest pain or all these other things, but zero specialized mental health services. There’s a disconnect.”

There is some good news in the data, he said. Observational data have shown that suicide rates negatively correlate with indicators of better access to health and medical health services, and researchers increasingly are identifying proven strategies that help prevent suicide in young people – once they have been identified.

But that’s the problem, “and we all know it,” Dr. Campo continued. “Most youth who are at risk for suicide aren’t recognized, and those who are recognized most often are untreated or inadequately treated,” he said. Further, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” but most adolescents die by suicide on their first attempt.

Again, however, Dr. Campo pivoted to the good news. Data also have shown that most youth who die by suicide had at least one health contact in the previous year, which means there are opportunities for screening and intervention.

The most common risk factor for suicide is having a mental health or substance use condition, present in about 90% of completed suicides and affecting approximately one in five youth. Prevalence is even higher in those with physical health conditions and among those with Medicaid or no insurance (J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2006 Mar-Apr;47[3-4]372-94).

Yet, “the majority of them have not been treated at all for mental disorder, which seems to be the most important remediable risk factor for suicide, and even fewer are in current treatment at the time of the death,” Dr. Campo said. Suicide also is correlated with a number of other high-risk behaviors or circumstances, such as “vulnerabilities to substance abuse, riding in a car with someone who is intoxicated, carrying a weapon to school, fighting, and meeting criteria for depression” (Pediatrics. 2010 May;125[5]:945-52). Screening for suicide risk therefore allows physicians to identify youth vulnerable to a wide range of risks, conditions, or death.

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