Major misunderstandings about clinical care related to suicidal risk tend to exasperate me a bit. Let me therefore address and clarify some common misunderstandings that can interfere with saving lives. The key constructs at hand are assessing suicidal risk, managing acute risk, and treating suicidal risk.

The Importance of Assessing Suicidal Risk

While it’s true that we cannot reliably predict future suicidal behaviors, assessing suicidal risk remains a crucial step in preventing suicide. The goal of suicide risk assessment is to identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide and develop a safety plan to prevent suicide.

It’s important to differentiate between screening and assessment. Suicide screening is a brief assessment of an individual’s risk for suicide, whereas suicide assessment involves a more comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s suicide risk. Both screening and assessment are important in identifying individuals at risk for suicide and ensuring they receive appropriate care.

Suicide Screening in Managing Suicidal Risk

Identifying individuals who may be at risk for suicide is crucial to save lives, and suicide screening is an effective approach to achieve this goal. Suicide screeners consist of a set of standardized questions or tools that are used to quickly identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide. The aim is to detect the prospect of suicidal risk using a short screener of questions.

ASQ and C-SSRS are two widely used suicide screeners with solid psychometrics, normed on both youth and adult populations. Developed by Dr. Lisa Horowitz at NIMH and Dr. Kelly Posner at Columbia University, respectively, these screeners are non-proprietary and available online. They have various versions for different populations and needs.

Although PHQ-9 is a free online screener, it was originally developed as a depression assessment and is therefore not a perfect screener for suicide risk. Suicide screeners such as ASQ and C-SSRS are preferred due to their psychometric robustness and suitability for suicide risk assessment.

Suicide Risk Screening vs. Suicide Assessment: Understanding the Difference

It is important to understand the difference between suicide risk screening and suicide assessment. Suicide risk screening involves the use of a standardized set of questions or tools to quickly identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide. In contrast, suicide assessment is a more in-depth process that involves the use of longer versions of suicide-specific assessment tools, along with clinical interviewing and relying on a clinician’s clinical judgement.

The C-SSRS is an example of a suicide-specific assessment tool that has longer versions for assessing suicide risk. However, there are many other proprietary assessment tools available that are not widely used. Research has shown that while clinicians prefer relying on their gut judgments, these assessments are never as good as actuarial assessment scales.

It is important to note that suicide risk screening and assessment are not the same as treatment. They are only the start of the process of identifying and addressing suicide risk. Clinicians should be aware of the different suicide screening and assessment tools available to provide the best care for their patients.

Managing Acute Suicidal Crises: The Importance of Intervention

IInterventions for managing acute suicidal crises are not a substitute for treatment or assessment. To help individuals in crisis, the Safety Plan Intervention (SPI) developed by Dr. Barbara Stanley and Dr. Greg Brown is widely used and proven to be more effective than the outdated “no-harm/no-suicide” contract. Another tool, the Crisis Response Plan (CRP) developed by Dr. David Rudd and studied by Dr. Craig Bryan, also shows promise in reducing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. A recent meta-analysis of safety planning studies in Europe confirms that such interventions significantly reduce suicide attempts. However, it’s essential to note that managing an acute crisis is just the beginning and not equal to treating suicide risk.

Treating Suicidal Risk: DBT, CT-SP, BCBT & CAMS

Treating suicide risk is a critical aspect of suicide prevention. Several proven interventions have been developed and tested through randomized controlled trials (RCTs) by independent investigators. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is effective in reducing suicide attempts and self-harm behaviors. Cognitive Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CT-SP) and Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (BCBT) have both shown significant reductions in suicide attempts. However, these interventions are not necessarily effective in reducing suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) is the most supported intervention for treating suicidal thoughts, with five published RCTs, nine published non-randomized clinical trials, and a new independent meta-analysis of nine CAMS trials. It is important to note that treating suicidal risk is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and treatment should be tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

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In summary, some of my biggest professional frustrations around clinical misunderstandings related to suicide risk are implied above but permit me to spell them out plainly:

  1. Simply doing a suicide screening and/or an assessment is not an intervention.
  2. Having a patient complete a Safety Plan is not treatment.
  3. Many treatments used for suicidal risk have little to no empirical support (e.g., medications and inpatient hospitalizations).
  4. Not all suicide-focused treatments impact all aspects of suicidality (e.g., behaviors vs. ideation).

The CAMS Approach: Effective Suicide Risk Assessment, Management, and Treatment

When it comes to suicide prevention, effective risk assessment, management, and treatment are critical. While the C-SSRS is an excellent screener and assessment tool for detecting suicide risk, it is not a treatment for suicidal risk. That’s where the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) approach comes in. CAMS is a proven, suicide-focused clinical intervention that includes both assessment and treatment components, with extensive empirical support.

One of the unique features of CAMS is its ability to function as a “therapeutic assessment” experience. It also manages and treats suicidal ideation better than any other clinical treatment available, with promising data on suicide attempts and self-harm as well. CAMS is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is an excellent option for the largest population in the field of suicide prevention: the 12 to 14 million Americans of all ages who experience serious thoughts of suicide.

Using CAMS can help clinicians avoid common clinical misunderstandings and ensure better clinical care, potentially leading to life-saving outcomes. So while the C-SSRS is a valuable tool for detecting suicide risk, it is important to remember that it is not a treatment. CAMS, on the other hand, is a proven approach that can effectively assess, manage, and treat suicidal risk.