Suicide rates have increased recently in the United States, with an almost 20% increase in Washington State. As healthcare professionals working in outpatient clinics, social service offices, clients’ homes, community pharmacies, dental offices, and other community settings, learning how and when to screen clients for suicidal ideation and behaviors can save a life. The goal of screening is to identify people at risk and quickly refer them to the services that can help prevent self-harm.
Washington law recommends that clients be screened for suicidal ideation and behavior. A screening tool such as the Patient Health Questionnaire 2 or the Columbia Suicide Screen can help a clinician gauge the immediacy of the risk, the need for a more thorough assessment, and the need for referral.
Healthcare providers have an ethical duty to assess client safety and understand the referral process. Screening is only the first step in identifying possible suicidal ideation and behaviors in your clients. Be prepared with a plan, know how to activate resources, and make sure to follow up. Staying engaged with a client will give hope and may be helpful in reducing depression and hopelessness.
Understanding when a person is at imminent risk of harm and being ready and willing to talk about lethal means are important aspects of suicide prevention. As in other areas of healthcare, a non-judgmental, kind, patient-centered approach is critically important.
Outpatient providers, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, dentists, and community pharmacists can play a key role in reducing suicidal behaviors by routinely screening clients and making timely referrals to mental health resources. These providers also play a key role once a client has been discharged following a suicide attempt. Risk remains elevated during the days and weeks following hospitalization for a suicide attempt, especially for people diagnosed with major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. This is a key issue for anyone providing services to a person after a suicide attempt.