Mental Health Consult

No-suicide contracts: Can they work?



Suicidologist Shawn Christopher Shea, MD, argues that the answer to whether or not NSCs can work is conditional on the unique combination of patient, clinician, and therapeutic relationship at play. He considers the limited data available and has warned against resolutely assuming either a pro- or anti-NSC stance. He postulates that NSCs might have the best chance at saving a life in the context of ongoing therapy with a patient with mature defenses, while in other contexts, such as with a patient with borderline personality disorder, it might prove counterproductive. Importantly, he wrote, “there is not a shred of empirical evidence that safety contracting has not been a deterrent with specific clients in the hands of specific clinicians.”

Dr. Shea describes various ways of maximizing the utility of the NSC. First, he describes that NSCs may be more effective as safety assessment tools (paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues) than tools to directly deter attempts. Second, NSCs may have increased utility when repeated across time to provide an understanding for how the patient typically engages in contracting. Soliciting a patient’s reasons for living also can enhance a contract’s usefulness because patients with suicidal ideation weigh reasons for living against reasons for dying in their decision-making. Finally, the sound documentation of the process of contracting not only protects against subsequent legal action but also improves the quality of the clinical care, in part by entraining the psychiatrist to incorporate key elements into the contracting process.

Returning to the clinical case, the strengths and weakness of that NSC can now be evaluated. Looking at the NSC through the eyes of Dr. Shea, the young therapeutic relationship diminishes the value of the NSC, while the relationship’s ongoing basis and the patient’s mature defenses bolster it. Dr. Shea would encourage the psychiatrist to use the NSC as an assessment tool, including assessment of ambivalence. In this case, the patient’s ambivalence about suicide comes through, but it could have been explored and expanded through explicit discussion of reasons for living. Applying the lens of Dr. Linehan, the contract is strengthened by the attention paid to social supports, while it would have been improved by specific discussion about warning signs and self-management tools.

In line with Dr. Drye’s original vision of the NSC, the degree to which the patient owns the NSC seems to be particularly crucial. In this case, the patient’s ownership of the no-suicide decision was suggested by his transparency during interview and full engagement in contracting, including identification of crisis resources. Still, the patient could have been encouraged to take additional responsibility for the NSC. One means of transferring responsibility to the patient could have been giving the patient a pen to create a written record of the contract, mobilizing and symbolizing the patient’s greater control of the process and outcome. Finally, and of utmost importance, it should be reiterated that the NSC should be only part of the assessment and planning that a psychiatrist does with a suicidal patient. While there are circumstances and strategies that augment its utility, it should not be overly relied on.


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Dr. Roberts is a board-certified psychiatrist in Northern Virginia, working in both the partial hospital and outpatient settings. She has a special interest in working with patients with serious mental illness and believes in the recovery model of care, in which each patient’s life goals become the focal point of their treatment. Dr. Roberts completed her psychiatry residency at George Washington University, in Washington, where she also served as the 2018-2019 chief outpatient resident. She is a native of Minnesota and earned her medical degree from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, in 2015. Dr. Roberts has no disclosures.


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