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Balance of Benefits and Harms for Screening for Suicide Insufficient, Study Reports

Update Date: Apr 23, 2013 10:16 AM EDT

Prescribing and diagnosing patients with mental illnesses can be extremely difficult since these types of disorders cannot be measured by any actual tests. Mental disorders, such as schizophrenia or depression, are often diagnosed based on a list of symptoms associated with each disorder and the individual's history and relationships with others. Although diagnosing patients and prescribing them with the right medications can help the patients live their lives, a new research study found that not all screenings are as effective as one would hope. The new report compiled by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force revealed that when it comes to estimating a patient's suicidal risks, there is insufficient data suggesting screening for suicidal risk can help or harm patients during a primary care medical visit.

The task force aimed to attempt to understand why so many suicides, nearly 37,000 per year, occur in people who were not considered to be high risk. The task force wanted to discover whether or not screening for suicidal risks in all patients by their primary care physicians would be effective in lowering the number of suicides. After a long overview of previous research and existing data, the task force concluded that screening for suicidal risks in all patients might actually not help lower the national rate of suicides.

The report revealed that in previous studies, 38 percent of adults who took their own lives had seen their primary care physicians within a month of their suicides. For children, nearly nine in 10 adolescents that committed suicide had seen their pediatricians within a year prior to their decision to kill themselves. Despite the fact that these people saw their doctors, the researchers believed that marking these individuals as suicidal risks is a hard task since there is no one indicator of suicidal tendencies. The primary care physician might not have enough time or enough previous knowledge to accurately determine whether or not the patient is dissatisfied with life. The task force looked into the types of screenings that doctors use and found that the tests that are believed to identify suicidal patients 100 percent of the time were actually not as effective. The numbers revealed that 60 to 80 percent of the people that are grouped as high-risk suicidal patients do not commit suicide. The researchers looked into the treatments that these patients received and found that these treatment options also did not have any evidence of effectively lowering the rates of suicide.

Based on these findings, the task force stated that there is no concrete evidence that screening for suicidal tendencies can actually prevent people from committing suicide. However, the task force also acknowledged the fact that there was no evidence that screening for these risks could be harmful. Since there is no sufficient evidence for screening and against screening, more research needs to be done to determine how medical professionals can help their patients. Many of the people who committed suicide surprised their loved ones and friends, which suggest that more needs to be done to find new ways of determining a person's likelihood to turn to suicide.

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