Physicians Can Play Greater Role in Suicide Prevention

Suicide risk and mental health issues may need more attention in primary care and medical specialty settings

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Primary care doctors treat all sorts of physical problems, but they also have an opportunity to address mental health issues like depression. Unfortunately, mental health might not come up in many doctors' offices.

A new study found that while many people visited a doctor in the year before they committed suicide, less than half were diagnosed with mental health issues at those visits.

The authors of this study noted that suicide is often preventable, and that their findings highlight the need for greater efforts to assess mental health and suicide risk in primary care settings.

According to these researchers, primary care doctors often have many available resources, but need to be made aware of how they can help someone who is feeling helpless and sad.

"Tell your doctor if you're feeling depressed."

The researchers, led by Brian K. Ahmedani, PhD, of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI, conducted this longitudinal study that involved analyzing the data of 5,894 people who died by suicide between 2000 and 2010.

These people were from eight mental health research systems in eight different states. All had health plans in the year before they died, and 83 percent of them had sought health care in the year before they resorted to suicide. The patients primarily used medical or primary care services.

About half of the study subjects made a medical visit in the four weeks before they died.

Unfortunately, only 45 percent of all of the subjects in this study were ever diagnosed with a mental health issue. The remainder were not diagnosed with mental health issues or offered treatment that may have helped prevent them from taking their lives.

Most visits to the doctor were made by women, people who earned above $40,000 per year and people 65 years of age and older.

Most of the suicides were carried out by men who were 45 to 64 years of age, and the majority chose a violent way to end their lives. Almost half (48.6 percent) of these people used a firearm, and 22 percent hung themselves. About 20 percent of people who chose a non-violent end used poison.

Dr. Ahmedani and colleagues noted limitations to their study, including that they did not distinguish between race or ethnicity, and not all people included in the study had health plans for the entire 12 months prior to their death. Furthermore, the study did not include people without health plans.

The authors suggested that physicians need to be better trained to assess and identify those at risk for suicide. Physicians also need to know what to do when they recognize someone who might be at risk for ending their life, the researchers wrote.

Suicide is the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, surpassing auto accidents.

This study was published in February in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Review Date: 
February 27, 2014
Last Updated:
March 2, 2014