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Suicide risk assessment: where are we now?

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A definitive way to identify patients who will suicide remains elusive

Patients who present in psychological crisis or after a suicide attempt are more than 50 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide in the following year.1,2 They require careful assessment and management. Numerous publications suggest, and some health department policies insist, that such patients should undergo a “comprehensive suicide risk assessment” in addition to a standard clinical assessment.3,4 Although most guidelines warn that suicide risk assessment does not substitute for clinical judgement, almost all also include long lists of patient characteristics that are claimed to enable identification of those patients at high risk of suicide. These lists are often fashioned into ad-hoc scales that purportedly stratify patients into categories of low, medium and high risk. However, it is simply not possible to predict suicide in an individual patient, and any attempt to subdivide patients into high-risk and low-risk categories is at best unhelpful and at worst will prevent provision of useful and needed psychiatric…