Final Recommendation Statement

Suicide Risk: Screening

May 15, 2004

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This Recommendation is out of date

It has been replaced by the following: Screening for Depression in Adults (2016) Depression and Suicide Risk in Children and Adolescents: Screening (2022)

This topic is being updated. Please use the link(s) below to see the latest documents available.

Recommendation Summary

Population Recommendation Grade
General Adult Population The USPSTF concludes that the evidence is insufficient to recommend for or against routine screening by primary care clinicians to detect suicide risk in the general population. I

Additional Information

Full Recommendation:

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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This statement summarizes the current U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations on screening for suicide risk and the supporting scientific evidence, and it updates the 1996 recommendations contained in the Guide to Clinical Preventive Services, Second Edition.1

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The USPSTF found no evidence that screening for suicide risk reduces suicide attempts or mortality. There is limited evidence on the accuracy of screening tools to identify suicide risk in the primary care setting, including tools to identify those at high risk (see Clinical Considerations). The USPSTF found insufficient evidence that treatment of those at high risk reduces suicide attempts or mortality. The USPSTF found no studies that directly address the harms of screening and treatment for suicide risk. As a result, the USPSTF could not determine the balance of benefits and harms of screening for suicide risk in the primary care setting.

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  • The strongest risk factors for attempted suicide include mood disorders or other mental disorders, comorbid substance abuse disorders, history of deliberate self-harm (DSH), and a history of suicide attempts. DSH refers to intentionally initiated acts of self-harm with a non-fatal outcome (including self-poisoning and self-injury). Suicide risk is assessed along a continuum ranging from suicidal ideation alone (relatively less severe) to suicidal ideation with a plan (more severe). Suicidal ideation with a specific plan of action is associated with a significant risk for attempted suicide.
  • Screening instruments are commonly used in specialty clinics and mental health settings. The test characteristics of most commonly-used screening instruments (Scale for Suicide Ideation [SSI], Scale for Suicide Ideation—Worst [SSI-W], and the Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire [SIQ)]) have not been validated to assess suicide risk in primary care settings. There has been limited testing of the Symptom-Driven Diagnostic System for Primary Care (SDDS-PC) screening instrument in a primary care setting.
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Although the incidence of suicide is low in the general population (0.01%), it was the 11th leading cause of death in the United States in 2000, with an age-adjusted rate of 10.6 per 100,000 people.4 Adolescents and the elderly are particularly at risk for suicide.5,6 Risk factors for attempted suicide include mood disorders, comorbid substance abuse disorders, and a history of previous suicide attempts.7 Additional risk factors for attempted suicide in youth are aggressive or disruptive behavior and history of physical and sexual abuse.8 Two-thirds of suicidal deaths occur on the first attempt, with higher completion rates in men than in women.9,10 Although men complete suicide more often than women, women attempt suicide more often than men.10 Between 3% and 5% of those who have had an episode of DSH die by suicide within 5 to 10 years.11 More than 90% of those who complete suicide have a psychiatric illness at the time of death, usually depression, alcohol abuse, or both.12 Almost 75% of suicides are completed by white males who have a 2-fold higher risk for suicide than do black males (19.1/100,000 vs 10.4/100,000).4 Native Americans are also at high risk for suicide.13

The USPSTF reviewed the evidence for the effectiveness of identification and treatment for suicide risk in the primary care setting. Because no direct evidence was found regarding the impact of screening on suicide attempts or completions, the USPSTF examined the accuracy of screening tests and the efficacy of treatment on intermediate outcomes, such as reduced suicidal ideation, reduced severity of depression, reduced hopelessness, and improved level of functioning. Their review did not include studies of populations with chronic psychiatric illnesses because people in this group would already have been identified as being at risk for suicide.

Little is known about screening instruments to assess suicide risk in primary care populations. Only 1 study of good quality evaluated a screening instrument, the 62-item SDDS-PC, for the identification of patients with psychiatric illnesses in the primary care setting.14 One of its items for assessing suicide risk, "feeling suicidal," was predictive of plans to attempt suicide with reasonable test characteristics (83% sensitivity, 98% specificity, and a 30% positive predictive value). However, the study has not been replicated, nor has the specific item been tested independent of the longer instrument. Two studies of fair to poor quality evaluated the 21-item SSI and the SSI-W in adult psychiatric outpatients.7,15 Patients who scored in the higher-risk category in the SSI and SSI-W were more likely to commit suicide than those who scored in the lower-risk category (approximately 7 and 14 times more likely, respectively). The shortened 4-item Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire (SIQ-JR), developed to identify adolescents at risk for suicide in emergency room settings, has 98% sensitivity, 37% specificity, and a 55% positive predictive value.16 None of these 3 screening instruments has been evaluated in the primary care setting. No studies were found that assessed instruments for screening patients at high risk for suicide in primary care populations.

In the USPSTF review, 33 randomized controlled trials addressed the effect of treatment of those patients with a history of suicide attempts on health outcomes and mortality.3 Thirty-one of these trials required recent DSH; the other 2 trials enrolled patients with borderline personality disorder (at least 75% of whom had a history of DSH in these 2 studies). With respect to the outcomes on suicide attempts and completion, no statistically significant effects of interventions were found for which more than 1 study of the intervention had been performed. However, some trends suggested incremental benefits from some interventions (in particular, problem-solving therapy for patients aged 15 or older). Of the interventions for which only 1 study was conducted, the most promising are dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for adults with borderline personality disorder, interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for adults with DSH, and group therapy for younger adolescents with DSH. No studies were found that evaluated treatment for suicide risk in the geriatric population. The studies comprising the evidence base have 3 primary limitations: first, studies tend to be underpowered; second, standard care is poorly described and likely varies across multiple studies; and third, there is a lack of stratification based on age and age ranges are inconsistent across studies. This limits the ability of the USPSTF to draw meaningful conclusions about the effects of these interventions on future suicide attempts or suicides.

Several studies of fair quality evaluated the effect of treatment on the intermediate outcomes of suicidal ideation, depressive severity, hopelessness, and level of functioning in high-risk patients. No studies recruited patients from primary care settings. Improvements were described in patients with a history of DSH who participated in problem-solving therapy, and in women with borderline personality disorder who were treated using DBT, antidepressant therapy, cognitive behavioral counseling, and interpersonal psychotherapy. Among children aged 18 and younger, who have a history of attempted suicide, brief emergency crisis intervention involving mother and daughter decreased depressive symptoms at the 18-month followup.17

No studies have directly addressed the harms of either screening or treatment of primary care patients at risk for suicide. Two studies found contradictory results regarding the harms of treatment interventions in a population of patients with a history of DSH compared with patients with no history of DSH.3

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The Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination (now the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care) has found insufficient evidence to recommend for or against routine evaluation of suicide risk and recommends that physicians should remain alert to the possibility of suicide in high-risk patients, particularly if there is evidence of psychiatric disorder, depression, or substance abuse or if the patient has recently attempted suicide or has a family member who committed suicide.18 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends asking about depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and other risk factors associated with suicide risk in routine history taking throughout adolescence.19 The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that clinicians be aware of patients at high risk for suicide (older male adolescents or adolescents of either sex, regardless of age, who have a current mental disorder or disordered mental state [such as depression, mania or hypomania, or mixed states], especially when complicated by comorbid substance abuse, irritability, agitation, or psychosis).20 The American Medical Association Guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services (GAPS) recommend that all adolescents be asked annually about behaviors or emotions that indicate risk for suicide.21

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Members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force* are Alfred O. Berg, M.D., M.P.H., Chair, USPSTF (Professor and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA); Janet D. Allan, Ph.D., R.N., C.S., Vice-chair, USPSTF (Dean, School of Nursing, University of Maryland Baltimore, Baltimore, MD); Paul Frame, M.D. (Tri-County Family Medicine, Cohocton, NY, and Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY); Charles J. Homer, M.D., M.P.H. (Executive Director, National Initiative for Children's Healthcare Quality, Boston, MA); Mark S. Johnson, M.D., M.P.H. (Professor of Family Medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School, Newark, NJ); Jonathan D. Klein, M.D., M.P.H. (Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, NY); Tracy A. Lieu, M.D., M.P.H. (Associate Professor, Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA); C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D. (Senior Scientist, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ); Jeffrey F. Peipert, M.D., M.P.H. (Director of Research, Women and Infants' Hospital, Providence, RI); Nola J. Pender, Ph.D., R.N. (Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI); Albert L. Siu, M.D., M.S.P.H. (Professor and Chairman, Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York, NY); Steven M. Teutsch, M.D., M.P.H. (Executive Director, Outcomes Research and Management, Merck & Company, Inc., West Point, PA); Carolyn Westhoff, M.D., M.Sc. (Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Professor of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY); and Steven H. Woolf, M.D., M.P.H. (Professor, Department of Family Practice and Department of Preventive and Community Medicine, and Director of Research Department of Family Practice, Virginia Commonwealth University, Fairfax, VA).

*Member of the USPSTF at the time this recommendation was finalized. For a list of current Task Force members, go to

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Contact the Task Force

Address correspondence to: Ned Calonge, M.D., M.P.H., Chair, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force; c/o Project Director, USPSTF; 540 Gaither Road; Rockville, MD 20850.

Available Products

The complete information on which this statement is based, including evidence tables and references, is available in the summary article2 and in the Systematic Evidence Review "Screening for Suicide Risk,"3 available through the USPSTF Web site ( and through the National Guideline Clearinghouse™ (

Source: This was first published in Ann Intern Med 2004;140:820-1.

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. Government. They should not be construed as an official position of AHRQ or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Copyright and Electronic Dissemination

This document is in the public domain within the United States. Requests for linking or to incorporate content in electronic resources should be sent via the USPSTF contact form.

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  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Guide to Clinical Preventive Services. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; 1996.
  2. Gaynes B. Screening for suicide risk in adults: a summary of the evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med 2004;140:822-35.
  3. Gaynes B. Screening for Suicide Risk. Systematic Evidence Review No. 32 (Prepared by the Research Triangle Institute-University of North Carolina Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-97-0011). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. May 2004. (Available at
  4. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System). Available at: Accessed June 19, 2003.
  5. Safer DJ. Adolescent/adult differences in suicidal behavior and outcome. Ann Clin Psychiatr 1997;9(1):61-6.
  6. Minino AM, Arias E, Kochanek KD, Murphy SL, Smith BL. Deaths: final data for 2000. Natl Vital Stat Rep 2002:50(15):1-119.
  7. Brown GK, Beck AT, Steer RA, Grisham JR. Risk factors for suicide in psychiatric outpatients: a 20-year prospective study. J Consult Clin Psychol 2000;68(3):371-7.
  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Suicide facts.
  9. Mann JJ. A current perspective of suicide and attempted suicide. Ann Intern Med 2002;136(4):302-11.
  10. Kessler RC, Borges G, Walters EE. Prevalence of and risk factors for lifetime suicide attempts in the National Comorbidity Survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1999;56(7):617-26.
  11. Gunnell D, Frankel S. Prevention of suicide: aspirations and evidence. BMJ 1994;308(6938):1227-33.
  12. Hirschfeld RM, Russell JM. Assessment and treatment of suicidal patients. N Engl J Med 1997;337(13):910-15.
  13. Borowsky IW, Resnick MD, Ireland M, Blum RW. Suicide attempts among American Indian and Alaska Native youth: risk and protective factors. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1999;153(6):573-80.
  14. Olfson M, Weissman MM, Leon AC, Sheehan DV, Farber L. Suicidal ideation in primary care. J Gen Intern Med 1996;11(8):447-53.
  15. Beck AT, Kovacs M, Weissman A. Assessment of suicidal intention: the Scale for Suicide Ideation. J Consult Clin Psychol 1979;47(2):343-52.
  16. Reynolds W. Suicide Ideation Questionnaire. Odessa, Fl: Psychological Assessment Resources. 1987.
  17. Rotheram-Borus MJ, Piacentini J, Cantwell C, Belin TR, Song J. The 18-month impact of an emergency room intervention for adolescent female suicide attempters. J Consult Clin Psychol 2000;68(6):1081-93.
  18. McNamee JE, Offord DR. Prevention of suicide. In: Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination. Canadian Guide to Clinical Preventive Health Care. Ottawa: Health Canada. 1994; 456-467. Available at Accessed April 18, 2003.
  19. Suicide and suicide attempts in adolescents. Committee on Adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatrics 2000;105(4 Pt 1):871-4.
  20. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with suicidal behavior. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2001;40(7 Suppl):24S-51S.
  21. American Medical Association. Guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services (GAPS): Recommendation 20. In: The GAPS Recommendations Monograph; 1997. Available at: Accessed April 18, 2003.
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