Adolescent suicide risk screening in the emergency department

Cheryl A King, Roisin M O'Mara, Charles N Hayward, Rebecca M Cunningham
Academic Emergency Medicine: Official Journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine 2009, 16 (11): 1234-41

OBJECTIVES: Many adolescents who die by suicide have never obtained mental health services. In response to this, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention recommends screening for elevated suicide risk in emergency departments (EDs). This cross-sectional study was designed to examine 1) the concurrent validity and utility of an adolescent suicide risk screen for use in general medical EDs and 2) the prevalence of positive screens for adolescent males and females using two different sets of screening criteria.

METHODS: Participants were 298 adolescents seeking pediatric or psychiatric emergency services (50% male; 83% white, 16% black or African American, 5.4% Hispanic). The inclusion criterion was age 13 to 17 years. Exclusion criteria were severe cognitive impairment, no parent or legal guardian present to provide consent, or abnormal vital signs. Parent or guardian consent and adolescent assent were obtained for 61% of consecutively eligible adolescents. Elevated risk was defined as 1) Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire-Junior [SIQ-JR] score of > or =31 or suicide attempt in the past 3 months or 2) alcohol abuse plus depression (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-3 [AUDIT-3] score of > or =3, Reynolds Adolescent Depression Scale-2 [RADS-2] score of > or =76). The Beck Hopelessness Scale (BHS) and Problem Oriented Screening Instrument for Teenagers (POSIT) were used to ascertain concurrent validity.

RESULTS: Sixteen percent (n = 48) of adolescents screened positive for elevated suicide risk. Within this group, 98% reported severe suicide ideation or a recent suicide attempt (46% attempt and ideation, 10% attempt only, 42% ideation only) and 27% reported alcohol abuse and depression. Nineteen percent of adolescents who screened positive presented for nonpsychiatric reasons. One-third of adolescents with positive screens were not receiving any mental health or substance use treatment. Demonstrating concurrent validity, the BHS scores of adolescents with positive screens and the POSIT scores of those with positive screens due to alcohol abuse and depression indicated substantial impairment. The addition of alcohol abuse with co-occurring depression as a positive screen criterion did not result in improved case identification. Among the subgroup screening positive due to depression plus alcohol abuse, all but one (>90%) also reported severe suicide ideation and/or a recent suicide attempt. This subgroup (approximately 17% of adolescents who screened positive) also reported significantly more impulsivity than other adolescents who screened positive.

CONCLUSIONS: The suicide risk screen showed evidence of concurrent validity. It also demonstrated utility in identifying 1) adolescents at elevated risk for suicide who presented to the ED with unrelated medical concerns and 2) a subgroup of adolescents who may be at highly elevated risk for suicide due to the combination of depression, alcohol abuse, suicidality, and impulsivity.

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