Screening, triage, and referral of patients who report suicidal thought during a primary care visit

William Gardner, Jennifer Klima, Deena Chisolm, Heather Feehan, Jeff Bridge, John Campo, Nancy Cunningham, Kelly Kelleher
Pediatrics 2010, 125 (5): 945-52

OBJECTIVE: Suicidal youths are rarely identified in primary care settings. We describe here a care process that includes a computerized screen, colocated social workers, and a coordinated suicide-prevention team at a specialty mental health unit.

PATIENTS AND METHODS: Patients were 1547 youths aged 11 to 20 years seen in an urban primary care system during 2005 and 2006. We performed an observational study of services provided to youths who screened positive for suicidal ideation on a computerized behavioral health screen during visits to pediatric primary care clinics. Data included clinical records, provider notes, and patients' responses to the screen.

RESULTS: A total of 209 (14%) youths reported suicidal thought in the previous month. Suicidal thought was more common among girls, younger youths, substance users, depressed youths, youths who carried weapons, and those who had been in fights; 87% reported at least 1 other serious behavioral health problem. Social workers were able to triage 205 (98%) youths. Triage occurred on the visit day for 193 youths (94%). Mental health evaluations were recommended for 152 (74%) of the triaged youths. Of the 109 subjects referred to a clinic with records accessible for review, 71 (65%) received a mental health service within 6 months.

CONCLUSIONS: Pediatric primary care is a feasible setting in which to screen for suicidal youths and link them with mental health services. Youths who visit primary care clinics are willing to disclose suicidal ideation on a computerized screen. Youths who screen positive for suicide have many associated behavioral health needs. The use of information technology, colocated physician extenders, and a coordinated team on the mental health side can facilitate rapid, personal contact between the family and mental health service providers, and has the potential to overcome barriers to care for youths with suicidal ideation in the primary care setting.

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