What Now?   Management Strategies when a Suicide Screen is Positive 2/5/2021

Last week’s newsletter encouraged readers dealing with teenagers to conduct a screening inquiry for suicidality, noting the rationale for inquiry and the resistance most of us feel about opening a potential Pandora’s box.    This week’s article pulls from prior newsletters and from feedback from readers to speak to the “What Now?” of suicide screening— discussing the factors that need to be addressed when an initial screening is positive.

While suicide in children and adolescents is fortunately a relative rare occurrence, it is obviously a tragic outcome.  Efforts to intervene can have impact and screening is one intervention that can help reduce injury and deaths by leading to critically needed referral for supportive interventions and treatment for those at risk.

The prolonged disruptions to daily routine and social activity resulting from pandemic constraints are now a universal and significant stressor for all youth and their families and, in this context, the need to assess for suicidal risk is now more important even for those who, in other respects, do not have previously identified disorders or recognizable risk factors or precipitants.

It is of note that suicidal ideation is not uncommon, across all age groups, and one of the challenges in screening for suicidal risk is that of differentiating those who are at actual risk of acting on their ideation from those with minimal or no risk.  This said, it is also clear that not all suicides are predictable or preventable, yet screening and then assessing risk levels are key steps in defining acute interventions that can help in developing both immediate and a long term oversight or management strategies.


Higher Risk:    Individuals at higher risk for suicide and/or self-harm would typically be characterized as having both significant acute and/or chronic stressors, coupled with longstanding vulnerabilities, such as substantial underlying mental health problems and/or chronic interpersonal and psychosocial challenges.  Higher levels of concern should be aroused for those individuals with prior suicidal behaviors, issues with impulsivity, current substance abuse behaviors, and disturbances in affect regulation.   The absence of core social support systems is another risk concern.

Access to means of self-harm such as unsecured weapons or excess medications in the home are key environmental factors that need to be explored and addressed with the patient and the family.  Interventions for individuals deemed to be at high risk should entail referral to a crisis mental health service where either inpatient admission or high intensity outpatient engagement can be provided.  When making a referral to such services, arranging for safe transport to the facility should be considered with care.  Follow through efforts by the primary care provider to monitor the patient’s compliance with such referrals is also advisable and the primary care provider can be a valuable touchstone for the patient and family through follow up monitoring and triage into the future.

Moderate risk:   Individuals who report significant suicidal ideation and or pervasive depression without intent and without other risk features identified above, typically should be directed to seek consultation and treatment with mental health providers with support of their families and with follow up contacts in primary care until there is clear engagement in treatment or clear evidence of resolution of the presenting problem(s).   Whether provided through the primary care office or through engagement of an external agencies (such as the Access and Crisis Line or the SmartCare program) it is important to assure that linkage with the relevant treatment resource is achieved and that follow up care is monitored.

No or minimal risk:   Fortunately, most patient screening will result in negative findings, and no need for follow up interventions.   This said, screening for risk is typically well accepted by patients as an indication of concern and likely will prime both the youth and family to respond proactively to engage with their primary care provider should issues or problems arise in the future.

THE TALK:   Having a “scripted” phrase or two can make the screening process far easier on providers.   For example, “As part of our clinic’s efforts to help keep everyone safe during these difficult times, we are asking all patients if they having serious emotional distress or having thoughts of hurting themselves, so I’ wondering if that is or has been an issue for you.”  This normalizes the question as being one that all patients are being asked and opens a door for further dialogue about folks’ functioning and adaptation.

The following “scripts” are examples of how one might respond based on your assessment of the patient level of risk

NO RISK: “Hey, that is great—glad to hear it.  If things ever get rough, do let us know so we can help you with getting help.

LOW RISK:   “Thanks for sharing, it sounds like it could help if we could give you a hand in finding some resources to deal with these concerns and keep your situation under better control.”  Providing a list of community resources such as 211, referencing relevant advocacy groups or websites, and offering linkage to other service facilitators such as SmartCare or other trusted service providers would be appropriate next steps.  Finally, arranging for a follow-up visit or other communication about how things have evolved would be warranted.

MEDIUM RISK:  “I’m concerned that you are experiencing these difficulties, so let’s take a moment to set up some safety measures to keep you safe and get you support and assistance in resolving these problems.”   For patients deemed to have mid-level risk and vulnerability engagement of the family and/or trusted community support resources is warranted with a focus both on defining a Safety Plan (what to do and where to go if the stressors and the risks get further elevated) and on getting the youth and family engaged with formal service providers capable of working overtime to address the stressor or underlying conditions and problems.   Interactions with these patients should always include a closing note to the effect that “I want to hear from you next week or so to hear about how things are going.  Feel free to call me if you think you’re not making progress.

HIGH RISK “We are going to arrange for you to get help now.”     Patients who report active suicidal and self-harm propensities with concurrent areas of vulnerability and/or active risk factors will need immediate attention and referral to appropriate resources for further evaluation and intervention.  If they are currently in treatment, contact with their current provider would be appropriate to assist in developing an action plan.  When risk concerns are acute, referral to a crisis evaluation service or hospital ER with attention paid to transport safety.  (See below for local resources.)

When immediate referral for ER/crisis services is deemed unnecessary, a Safety Plan identifying ways to reduce potential risk is warranted and should include the following:

  • secure guns and other lethal items from accessibility
  • identify a protocol for ongoing monitoring of the patient’s status
  • scheduling follow up with the responsible behavioral health professional
  • clarifying triggers for future contact with emergency resources, etc.


Emergency & Crisis Numbers

Emergency Response if you are experiencing a behavioral health emergency or in case of immediate threat of harm to self or others.

San Diego 24-Hour Access and Crisis Line
24/7 toll free availability for information on how to handle a behavioral health crisis.
1 (800) 479-3339

211 San Diego
2-1-1 San Diego connects people with community, health and disaster services through a free, 24/7 phone service and searchable online database.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Available 24/7, toll-free 1-800-273-TALK

Crisis Text Line
Text BRAVE to 741-741  Anyone in the U.S. can receive free, 24/7 crisis support.

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline
1-800-931-2237; Toll-free, available Monday through Thursday, 9am-9pm, Friday 9am-5pm (EST)

National Runaway Safeline
1-800-RUNAWAY; Toll-free, available 24/7

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE; Toll-free, available 24/7; Free instant messaging option available

Trevor Project
1-866-488-7386; Available 24/7; free texting and chat options available; for gay and questioning youth


Emergency Screening Unit (MediCal insured):   4309 Third Avenue; SD, CA 92103       619-876-450

Rady’s Behavioral Urgent Care 4305Unversity Avenue, Ste 150; SD, CA 92105             858-966-5484

Rady Children’s Hospital C&A Psychiatry; 8001 Frost St, Nelson Pavilion 92123       858-576-1000 x225800

Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital:    7850 Vista Hill Avenue SD, CA 92123                                  858-836-8434

Aurora Behavioral Healthcare SD Hospital   11878 Avenue of Industry SD, CA 92128    858-457-3200


SmartCare E-Weekly Articles  http://www.smartcarebhcs.org/newsletters/

Developing & Implementing a Safety Plan 


Suicidal Patients & COVID 19: Tips for Managing SI in a Telehealth World


Adolescent Self-Harm & Suicide Risk: Management Strategies 9/10/2020


Non-Suicidal Self Injury


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