Is This a Psychiatric Emergency? How to Screen, Assess, and Triage Safety Concerns From the Primary Care Office

Yasmeen Abdul-Karim, MD

August 16, 2021

Case vignette: Laura is a 14-year-old biological girl who presents to your office for a routine well-child visit. She is doing well medically but notes that over the past 3 months she has been having increasing thoughts of suicide and has self-harmed via cutting on her wrists with a blade removed from a shaving razor. You contemplate what the most salient questions are in order to determine the best disposition for your patient.

Dr Yasmeen Abdul-Karim

The case vignette above may sound like one that you have heard before, and if not, you undoubtedly will encounter such a situation moving forward. The rate of suicidal ideation amongst youth ages 10-24 has increased by 57.4% between 2007 and 2018.1 Furthermore, suicide is the second leading cause of death in those aged 10 through young adulthood.2 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 18.8% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, 15.7% made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, and 8.9% actually attempted suicide, with 2.5% having a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or overdose that had to be treated by a doctor or nurse during the 12 months before the survey.3 Children often present first to their primary care provider, and they may be the first individual who the child shares their suicidal or self-harm thoughts with. It may be useful to have a standardized approach, while using your own clinical judgment, to determine best next steps. Given the significant recent surge in children presenting to the emergency department for psychiatric needs and that environment having its own limitations (for example, long wait times, nontherapeutic space, etc.), a simple screen and brief assessment may lead to being able to maintain a patient safely outside of the hospital.

Screen All Appropriate Patients for Suicide

There are, at minimum, three validated screening tools that can be used as to determine what the best next step should be. They include the Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ) developed by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS), and the PHQ-9 (modified for adolescents). We can highlight one of the screening tools here as noted below, but the choice of screener may be based on facility and/or clinician preference.

The Ask Suicide-Screening Questions

The ASQ, developed by the National Institute of Mental Health, include the following four binary questions plus a fifth acuity question, as follows:

1. In the past few weeks, have you wished you were dead?

2. In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?

3. In the past week, have you been having thoughts about killing yourself?

4. Have you ever tried to kill yourself?

a. If yes, how?

b. When?

The following acuity question is to be asked if any of the above are answered “yes”:

5. Are you having thoughts of killing yourself right now?

a. If yes, please describe.

Assess the Level of Risk

Once you have screened a patient, you need to assess the level of risk to help determine the level of care required. Returning to our original case vignette, does the patient warrant outpatient management, crisis evaluation, or an emergency psychiatric evaluation? You may have already decided that the patient needs an emergency mental health evaluation from a local crisis clinician evaluation and/or the emergency department. However, you may also find that the screen did not elicit imminent concern, but it does warrant a brief assessment to further elucidate the level of risk and proper disposition. One such instrument that may be helpful is the Brief Suicide Safety Assessment (BSSA) – also developed by the NIMH as a tool linked to the ASQ. There are clear and specific instructions in the BSSA with suggestions on how to ask questions. Important components to the BSSA include:

  • A focus on a more thorough clinical history – including frequency of suicidal ideation, suicide plan, past behavior, associated symptoms, and social support/stressors

  • Collateral information (e.g., further details from those who know the patient such as family/friends).

  • Safety planning.

  • Determining disposition.

The BSSA may suggest that a crisis/psychiatric evaluation is warranted or suggest that a safety plan with a mental health referral will likely be sufficient.

Triage and Safety Planning

A safety plan should be created if you determine that a patient can be safely maintained as an outpatient based on your screening, assessment, and triaging. Traditional safety plans come in many different forms and can be found online (Example of a Safety Plan Template). However, most safety plans include some version of the following:

  • Increased supervision: 24/7 supervision with doors open/unlocked.

  • Reduced access: medications (prescription and OTC) locked away; sharps and firearms secured.

  • Adaptive coping strategies (e.g., relaxation techniques such as drawing or listening to music).

  • Reliable persons for support (e.g., parent, therapist, school counselor).

  • Outpatient mental health provider follow-up and/or referral.

  • Provision of local crisis and national hotline contact information.

  • Use of a safety plan phone app completed with patient.

  • Envision a safety plan as a living document that evolves, grows, and changes with your patient/family – one that can be easily reviewed/updated at each visit.

Returning to Our Case Vignette

Laura returns to your office for a follow-up after a 10-day stay at a hospital-diversion program or inpatient psychiatric unit. The decision is made to use the primary care NIMH ASQ/BSSA algorithm, and you determine the patient to not be at imminent risk following the screen and assessment. Laura is triaged as appropriate for outpatient care, you collaborate to update the safety plan, regular follow-ups are scheduled, and a mental health referral has been placed. Thus, there are tools to assist with screening, assessing, and triaging pediatric patients with suicidal ideation that provide the patient with appropriate care and treatment and may help alleviate the need to have a patient present to the emergency department.

Yasmeen Abdul-Karim, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont University Children's Hospital in Burlington.

Additional Resources

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has developed information that can be provided to families about suicide safety precautions that can be taken at home, which can be found here: Facts for Families. Suicide Safety: Precautions at Home.

Screening tools listed above can be found here:

ASQ Toolkit.


PHQ-9 Modified for Adolescents (PHQ-A).


1. Curtin SC. National Center for Health Statistics. "State Suicide Rates Among Adolescents and Young Adults Aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2018" National Vital Statistics Reports.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. "Underlying Cause of Death 2018-2019" CDC WONDER Online Database. Accessed 2021 Jul 31, 6:57:39 p.m.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1991-2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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