Caring for Suicidal Youth: An Approach for Pediatricians

This month’s column is driven by the recent increase of youth in crisis, and COVID-19–related limitations of higher-level services. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth1 and populations who face discrimination are at increased risk.2,3

A pediatrician colleague recently asked me about how to support patients who may be at risk. With inpatient units and emergency departments over capacity, properly allocating resources to patients with the most acute needs is crucial. When appropriate, providing preventive care in primary care similarly saves lives.

Case Summary

Cassandra is a 16-year-old Black girl who told a friend on Snapchat that she did not want to be alive. The friend told her parents and Cassandra’s parents brought their daughter to an urgent primary care appointment. Cassandra has had a history of difficulty with large transitions like a family move when she was 13. She spent more time in her room for several months before joining the volleyball team and making new friends. She has always done well academically in school but struggled with insomnia and classwork when her high school shifted to remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year because of the pandemic. This year shes school in person but is unable to play volleyball because of COVID-19 restrictions. Her parents report that she is again spending more time online in her room. She is passing her classes and doing well in math, but overall, her grades have fallen since the pandemic began. She reports recent difficulties with friends and notes feeling hopeless about a changing climate and race relations in the United States.


This case example illustrates some factors pediatricians can consider in determining how to proceed in similar circumstances. What are Cassandra’s immediate risk and treatment needs? In cases like Cassandra’s, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the ABCD (Assess, Build hope, Connect, Develop a safety plan) approach.4 Preparing practices to deliver this best possible preventive suicide care is essential.

1. Is this patient at imminent risk of harming herself?

Assess: Screen for suicide risk and assessed risk level. Several standardized screening tools exist for gauging a patient’s risk. The Ask Suicide Screening Questionnaire (asQ) is a straightforward screening tool (not to be confused with the ASQ Ages and Stages developmental screening). These questionnaires take only a few minutes and next steps are suggested depending on the score (low, moderate, or high risk) and clinical judgment. What matters most is using a standardized screener to directly ask questions about suicide and then follow up appropriately based on risk.

2. What can be done during the visit to promote a good outcome?

Build hope/reasons for living. Validate that people sometimes feel suicidal when things are difficult, but that the feelings come and go and people go on to live meaningful lives. Tell the patients that you care about keeping them safe when the feelings come up. Motivational interviewing can be helpful to reflect back patient-identified reasons for living. Genuinely tell the patients how much you care about their well-being.

3. What can be done outside the visit to promote a good outcome?

Connect: Strengthen connections with protective adults. Make a plan to have the patient connect regularly with parents/trusted adults. She could engage in social action, or connect one-on-one. With more structured social opportunities, she will spend less time online. Medical practices can reach out with postcards and phone calls to show that they care about the patient, an intervention called “Caring Contacts” that has been shown to decrease suicide.

4. Once suicide risk is identified, what are specific tools to use during the visit to keep her safe?

Develop a plan for staying safe: Restrict access to lethal means, develop a safety plan and healthy ways of coping. There is a free 2-hour CALM (Counseling on Access to Lethal Means) training to help providers feel competent in restricting access to lethal means prior to increased risk. This resource provides safety plan templates that help identify triggers, specific ways to stay safe, people to talk to, and suicide prevention resources including lifelines (988) and chat options (text 2 letter state to 741741).

Enacting suicide prevention requires practice readiness and workflow changes. Providers should assess mental health supports in and out of the office, and then rehearse workflow around suicide prevention care. Increasingly, there are embedded case managers or behavioral health providers available. Sometimes local mental health crisis services are the best option. A practice introductory letter to community mental health practitioners can improve later coordination efforts when caring for suicidal youth. Having practice-level support for provider well-being can improve outcomes.

Case Follow-up

After interviewing the girl separately, and performing a PHQ-A and an asQ, followed by the Brief Suicide Safety Assessment to screen for acuity, the pediatrician felt confident that Cassandra was suffering from moderate depression and had moderate but not imminent risk of suicide. Options to treat her depression were discussed with Cassandra and her parents, and a referral to therapy was made.

The provider knew that depression care is complementary but not sufficient as standalone suicide prevention. The provider used the asQ pathway to determine next steps. He made a safety plan, and referred her to an outpatient mental health clinician with whom the practice had an established relationship for an mental health evaluation. A follow-up primary care appointment was scheduled within 72 hours to re-check safety and ensure that she had an appointment scheduled to start therapy. A nurse contacted the patient and her family regularly to check on her well-being. Her parents made a plan with her volleyball coach to organize outdoor off-season conditioning to help with exercise and socializing. The family removed screens prior to bedtime and sleep improved. At a 3-month follow-up, Cassandra had only mild depressive symptoms and the frequency and intensity of her suicidal ideation had decreased.

Spottswood is a child psychiatrist practicing in an integrated care clinic at the Community Health Centers of Burlington, Vermont, a Federally Qualified Health Center. She is the medical director of the Vermont Child Psychiatry Access Program and a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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