People with problem gambling have higher rates of suicidality, including suicidal thinking, attempts and completed suicide (Karlsson & Håkansson, 2018; Maccallum & Blaszczynski, 2003). Furthermore, people who experience problem gambling are at higher risk of having past and current suicidal thoughts, history of suicide attempts and suicide mortality compared to the general population (Karlsson & Håkansson, 2018; Maccallum & Blaszczynski, 2003). Ongoing suicide assessment is critical to identify and support clients who are at high risk for these potential harms.
One Canadian study of people who recently attempted to quit gambling showed that almost 40 per cent of participants had thought about suicide and 33 per cent had made an attempt (Hodgins et al., 2006). Another Canadian study found that people with problem gambling were three times more likely to attempt suicide than people without problem gambling (Newman & Thompson, 2003). A more recent Swedish study showed that people with problem gambling had a rate of suicide mortality that was 15 times higher than the rest of the population (Karlsson & Håkansson, 2018).
This webpage provides an overview of the evidence on the prevalence of suicide in people with gambling problems, common risk factors and practice guidelines to reduce this risk. Intended for mental health and addiction services, this information is based on a review of the literature and was reviewed by an expert in the field.
Suicide is defined as “the act of intentionally causing one's own death” (Kessler et al., 2008) and is a complex outcome of interconnected biological, social, psychological and cultural factors (Nock et al., 2008). Having suicidal thoughts or participating in suicidal behaviour not only increases a person’s risk of suicide, but is both distressing and debilitating. In addition, completed suicide affects not only those who die, but also their family and social networks (Cerel et al., 2008).
We know that people with problem gambling are at higher risk of suicidal thinking, attempts and completed suicide (Karlsson & Håkansson, 2018; Maccallum & Blaszczynski, 2003). For this reason, it is important to identify problem gambling clients who have additional risk factors for suicide, especially those with a history of suicidal behaviour and other mental health problems such as ongoing substance use (Bischof et al. 2016).
By assessing suicide risk and monitoring it over time, clinicians can help ensure their clients are receiving the appropriate level of care, and work with them and their other care providers to promote safety and target risk factors that can be changed (Jacobs et al., 2010).
What does the evidence say?
Evidence on the link between problem gambling and suicide lends support to the need for early identification of clients at high risk (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2012).
About 20 to 40 per cent of adults with problem gambling in treatment settings have a history of suicide attempts (Séguin et al., 2010). In addition, estimated rates of suicidal ideation among clients in mental health and problem gambling support settings have ranged between 17 and 80 per cent (Maccallum & Blaszczynski, 2003). Adolescents with problem gambling are four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and 18 times more likely to attempt suicide than those without problem gambling (Cook et al., 2014).
Research suggests that certain factors can increase a person’s risk of suicide, such as having more severe problem gambling and having certain mental health disorders (e.g., mood disorders, personality disorders, and impulsivity/attention deficit hyperactivity disorders) (Bolton et al., 2015; Carter et al., 2017; Fowler, 2012; Frank et al., 1991; Kausch, 2003; Large et al., 2016; National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2012; Newman & Thompson, 2003; Quinlivan et al., 2017; World Health Organization, 2014).
While there is less research on the role of protective factors (Kleiman & Liu, 2013), several studies have shown that certain factors are linked to a lower risk of suicide, such as having strong social support, attending religious services regularly and having effective coping and problem-solving skills (Jacobs et al., 2010; Kleiman & Liu, 2013; Kleiman & Liu, 2014; World Health Organization, 2014).
|Type of factor||Risk factor||Protective factor|
|Level of problem gambling severity||N/A|
|Behaviour and personality|
|Relationships and community involvement|
|Religion or spirituality||N/A|
Suicide risk assessment can systematically collect and evaluate information to help estimate a client’s risk of suicidal behaviour (Jacobs et al., 2010; Zaheer et al., 2017). These assessments involve gathering information from the client, family members and close contacts, other healthcare professionals involved in their care, and available clinical records.
A risk assessment allows the clinician not only to determine if a client needs immediate help (e.g., to see a psychiatrist or go to a hospital emergency department), but also to identify any treatment they may need, help them use their strengths and support network, and develop a safety plan (see the Developing a safety plan section) (Jacobs et al., 2010; Perlman et al., 2011; Zaheer et al., 2017).
By using multiple suicide risk assessments, the clinician and client can identify changes in their suicide risk and whether they need treatment for underlying mental health, substance use and/or psychosocial problems (Jacobs et al., 2010; Perlman et al., 2011; Zaheer et al., 2017).
When conducting a suicide risk assessment, keep in mind that there is a difference between risk factors and warning signs. Risk factors increase the likelihood that a person might contemplate suicide at some point in their life, while warning signs show that a person might consider suicide in the near future (Perlman et al., 2011).
Warning signs of suicide
- Threatening to harm or end one’s life.
- Seeking or access to means: seeking pills, weapons or other means.
- Showing evidence of or expressing a suicide plan.
- Expressing (writing or talking) ideation about suicide, wish to die or death.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness.
- Expressing feelings of rage or anger, or seeking revenge.
- Acting recklessly, engaging impulsively in risky behaviour.
- Expressing feelings of being trapped with no way out.
- Showing increased or excessive substance use.
- Withdrawing from family, friends and/or society.
- Showing evidence of anxiety, agitation and/or abnormal sleep (too much or too little).
- Showing dramatic changes in mood.
- Expressing no reason for living, no sense of purpose in life.
For clients who are found to be at high risk of suicide, a variety of clinical approaches can reduce the likelihood of suicide attempts, including psychotherapy, group and family-based therapy and various medications.
How do I put the evidence into practice?
The suicide risk assessment
Conducting a suicide risk assessment with a client who has problem gambling should cover the following areas (Bolton et al., 2015; Bryan & Rudd, 2006; Perlman et al., 2011):
- predisposition to suicidal behavior (based on risk factors)
- stressors (e.g., significant financial loss)
- presentation of symptoms (e.g., symptoms of co-occurring mood disorder or personality disorder)
- presence of hopelessness and other warning signs
- access to lethal means, such as firearms
- previous suicidal behaviour (i.e., frequency and context, perceived lethality and outcome, opportunity for rescue and help seeking, preparatory behaviours)
- presence of protective factors (e.g., internal factors such as effective problem-solving and coping skills, and external factors such as strong family or community supports).
The discussion with your client will help you not only identify risk factors and warning signs, but also their strengths and level of resiliency, which will help encourage hope and reduce their risk of suicide (Perlman et al., 2011). However, keep in mind that the presence of protective factors does not reduce suicide risk in clients with severe warning signs (Perlman et al., 2011).
One method that can help reduce your client’s anxiety about the risk assessment and help build your therapeutic relationship is to increase the intensity of the discussion using a gradual approach (Bryan & Rudd, 2006). Begin by identifying what brought on the suicidal thoughts, move on to questions about symptoms, then uncover the nature of their suicidal thinking (Bryan & Rudd, 2006).
For examples of this line of questioning, listen to the two simulations below, which describe a client with acute suicidality (Simulation 1) and a client with suicidal ideation with no active plan (Simulation 2).
Kyle was referred to outpatient services after receiving a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, with one prior suicide attempt. The therapist and Kyle have been working together for eight months and have built a trusting therapeutic relationship. It was discovered early in counselling that Kyle was experiencing problems with gambling. The therapist worked on this with Kyle,, which helped him to abstain from gambling for most of the eight months. Recently, Kyle had a relapse due to stressors in his life and suffered a major financial loss. As a result, Kyle again became suicidal. Listen to the audio simulation or read the transcript.
Kyle: It all hit me at once. The vet bills were through the roof in those last days. Trying to treat the cancer, keep my pup alive, but I lost her anyway. [pause] Then the basement flooding and the contractor telling me I had to repair the foundation of the house. I felt so desperate. I went back to the casino last week… ended up losing everything that I worked for in the last eight months. I don't know what to do. I feel like such a loser.
Therapist: This all sounds really overwhelming, Kyle.
Kyle: Yeah. [pause] I don't know how I'm going to pay my mortgage or anything else for that matter. I feel so hopeless. Why am I so stupid?
Therapist: It sounds like you wanted to do whatever you could to keep your dog alive, and at the same time, were stressed and overwhelmed with the burden of a bunch of new financial responsibilities coming at you all at once. We've talked before about some of the emotional triggers and life stressors that make you more vulnerable to urges to gamble. Does it seem like that's what happened in this case?
Therapist: You know, Kyle, based on some of the things we've talked about in previous sessions and what you've shared with me today, it sounds like you're losing hope once again. Last time you felt hopeless for a long stretch, you had thoughts of wanting to end your life. It makes me wonder, are you currently thinking about killing yourself?
Kyle: [pause] Um … yeah, I am.
Therapist: Okay. Thank you for letting me know. I want to get a sense of how intense these thoughts are for you right now. I know you've said before that rating your thoughts feels a little weird, but answering this question is useful in helping me gauge where you're at right now. Let me know if this makes sense for you. If you were to rate your intention to kill yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being "I have no intention of killing myself" and 10 being "I am going to kill myself," how intense are the thoughts?
Kyle: Um … like a 9?
Therapist: 9. It sounds like you're in a lot of pain. Tell me more about what being at a 9 means for you. For example, what makes you at a 9 right now, rather than an 8?
Kyle: I just … I just don't see the point. What does it even matter if I'm here or not? No one would even notice.
Therapist: I would notice. [pause]. I can hear how alone you're feeling, though. And Kyle, if you think back to the past week, how often have you had this thought, that you want to kill yourself?
Kyle: Every day.
Therapist: It sounds like that thought is really front of mind right now. And when you think about it, do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?
Kyle: Probably … probably pills. I have lots of pain killers left over from my surgery last year.
Therapist: Mmm-hmm, you would take pills. If I remember correctly, the suicide attempt last year was an overdose, is that right?
Kyle: Yeah, it was …
Therapist: I'm hearing that the desperation and hopelessness and just feeling bad has gotten unbearable once again. [pause] And if I ask you to think back to how you were feeling and what you were thinking last year before you took all those pills, was your intent to kill yourself?
Kyle: Well … yeah. I think so? I don't know. I just couldn't handle dealing with life and how absolutely crappy I felt ALL THE TIME.
Therapist: I hear that. You were overwhelmed and wanted a way out. Do you have thoughts about when you would take the pills if you were to follow through with this plan?
Kyle: Um … I don't know. It's not like I have a date in my calendar or anything. I just know that when I've been drinking lately, it feels … more possible, you know?
Therapist: Mmm hmm. How often are you drinking? How many days in the past month, would you say?
Kyle: At least a beer every day. But some days, it's a lot more than that.
Therapist: [gentle] Yeah, we've talked about that too, eh? How alcohol—at least in the moment—can be effective in dulling the pain. What worries me, Kyle—and I know we've talked about this—is that drinking can also increase the risk that you might do something to hurt yourself. [pause] Lately when you're drinking, it could be one beer up to … What would be the most you'd drink in one day?
Kyle: I don't even know … maybe six beers, plus a few glasses of Jameson or something … I sometimes lose track.
Therapist: [empathic] It sounds like you're in a lot of pain right now, Kyle. What I'm hearing is that you just want to make that pain go away. To make it disappear. It's common for people with similar experiences to yours―a long battle with depression, overwhelming stress, major financial loss, the painful emotions that come with relapse―all of this happening at once―to consider suicide. Based on everything you've told me, I'm really worried about you. I want to help you stay safe right now.
Kyle: Okay …
Therapist: Do you remember when we talked about confidentiality and those times in therapy when I have to break confidentiality?
Kyle: Kind of …
Therapist: This is one of those times. Depending on what we decide to do together, in order to keep you safe right now, I have to let others know that I'm worried about you. I'm worried about the risk of you hurting yourself or following through with your plan to kill yourself.
Kyle: Okay … um, well, what does that mean?
Therapist: I'm going to suggest―and I've done this with other clients―that we go to the emergency room together, right now. It's very important that you're not alone right now. If you've been to the ER before, you probably know somewhat what to expect. You'll first see a triage nurse and tell her why you came. I'll be there if you want some support describing things. And then we play the waiting game. We'll have to wait for a while until you see a psychiatrist who will ask you similar questions to the ones I've asked you today. I know it can be uncomfortable talking about this stuff with a stranger, but it's important that you be honest with them, as honest as you've been with me. The doctor will decide if they think the best plan is to keep you at the hospital, and for how long, or something else. I can stay with you throughout this process, but I'm wondering if there's someone else who you might want there with you?
Kyle: I don't have anyone.
Therapist: Okay. I'll be there with you. Does that sound like a plan? We can take a taxi together and leave now.
Kyle: Umm … I'd rather not. I hate the hospital.
Therapist: [empathic] I know. It's not an easy place to be. But I'm suggesting we go there right now because I'm worried about you. It's the one place I know of that you'll be safe. And you don't have to go alone. I'll be there with you.
Adrian has been seeing a counsellor for problem gambling and was struggling to get her gambling under control with some degree of success. Her partner thinks that Adrian was abstaining from gambling while seeing the counsellor, but eventually she discovered that Adrian was still gambling when she opened up a credit card statement. Listen to the audio simulation or read the transcript.
Therapist: Hi, Adrian. It's good to see you again. How was your week?
Adrian: Well, my partner found out that I'm still gambling and really lost it. I don't know what I'm going to do, now. I feel just horrible.
Therapist: Can you tell me a bit more about what happened?
Adrian: She said that if I don't stop gambling, she's going to leave me.
Therapist: [empathic] How are you feeling about this?
Adrian: I don't know what to do. I'm feeling overwhelmed. I'm feeling down …
Therapist: It's understandable you'd be overwhelmed after such a conflict. Can you tell me a bit more about what it looks like when you feel overwhelmed and down?
Adrian: Well … [pause] I guess I just keep thinking, I wish this wasn't happening. I feel sad and all alone and misunderstood and like I don't have anyone, not even her. Then I feel guilty and have so much regret. I just regret being dishonest [sighs].
Therapist: It sounds like you're feeling sad and lonely. On a scale of zero (not sad at all) to ten (extremely sad), how sad are you feeling today?
Adrian: Maybe a four … it's an [pauses, searching for the right word and settles on one] okay day.
Therapist: Sometimes when we're feeling down and experiencing difficult emotions, like sadness, we may experience thoughts of suicide. Does this sound familiar to you? Do you have any thoughts of wanting to end your life?
Adrian: [sighs] Sometimes …
Therapist: When you do experience thoughts about suicide, do you have the intention to act on them?
Adrian: I've never tried to kill myself or anything. Uh, I mostly just think about not being here, and how those moments, like, that not being here would be better than how I'm feeling. Or I think, "What if I went to sleep and never woke up"?
Therapist: Thank you for sharing with me. Do you currently have thoughts of wanting to end your life?
Adrian: No, not today. Today's all right.
Therapist: How long have you been having these kinds of thoughts?
Adrian: Not that long―mostly like the last month or so―since my partner found out about the gambling and the fight we had. Things just haven't been the same since. And [pause] I guess I've had these thoughts before.
Therapist: Have you harmed yourself in any way in the past?
Adrian: Not physically. I used to drink a lot when I felt this way. Or I would just, like, totally isolate myself. Those things really hurt.
Therapist: It's understandable that, when you're feeling so overwhelmed, you'd return to some of your survival strategies. Are you using substances now?
Adrian: No, I can't afford to. And to be honest, if I could, I probably would.
Therapist: Thanks for being honest. And you're right, there are other ways to hurt ourselves, other than inflicting physical harm. As you mentioned, total isolation, for example.
Adrian: Yeah, when I'm down, I don't want to be around anyone. It's a bit harder when you live together, but I still just totally withdraw. I used to go days without seeing or talking to anyone. And I feel like that now.
Therapist: I'm really glad you talked to me about this, Adrian. Sounds like it probably wasn't easy to bring this up. I have a few more questions about the thoughts you're experiencing [pause]. How often do you have these thoughts? And how long do they last?
Adrian: Well, it's not every day, but I guess, on the days I have them, they usually stick around most of the day. I'd say I've had three days like that in the past month.
Therapist: When you feel that way, it's likely very hard to participate in daily activities. When your partner is thinking about taking space from your relationship, that leads to more difficult emotions, like guilt and regret. During these times, you have, in the past, thought about suicide, but you don't have the intent to act on these thoughts. Is that right?
Adrian: Yeah, that's where I'm at.
Therapist: I have a suggestion, I wonder if you would be willing to create a safety plan today?
Adrian: What's that?
Therapist: A safety plan is a tool that we create together that will give you some specific things you can do the next time you have thoughts about hurting yourself that can help you stay safer. Sound okay?
Adrian: Yeah. Let's do it.
Notice that the therapist uses information-seeking questions used in this risk assessment. Through direct questions about the presence of suicidality, we learn that Adrian has suicidal thoughts but does not have any planned methods or active intent. This is a more passive style of ideation where the client endorses vague expression of thoughts of death. The therapist explores these thoughts with Adrian, asking questions related to methods, timing, frequency, suicide planning and past suicidal behaviours to help determine if: a) the client should go to the hospital for acute care, b) a safety plan is necessary, or c) no risk is present. In this case, the therapist and Adrian decide to co-create a safety plan. Listen to the simulation or read the transcript to find out how the therapist and Adrian co-developed the safety plan.
Therapist: I'm going to give you a template I've used with other clients. As we discuss it, you can fill in each section accordingly. You can use this form anytime when you're feeling down. So keep it in a convenient place or take a picture of it with your phone. [Pause] Identify three things in the past that have been helpful when you've been feeling down.
Adrian: Okay. I've called my sister and that's helped. Usually listening to a good song, that will help my mood … [pause] or playing games on my phone.
Therapist: Great! Keep thinking about the things that have helped you cope in the past. Perhaps you could be more specific. What band would you listen to? What game would you play? Engaging in these distracting activities for at least 30 minutes can help. I wonder if there's any way to know the likelihood that you might have these thoughts. Can you identify when the difficult thoughts might show up? Can you predict their arrival?
Adrian: That's a hard one. I think one of the biggest predictors for me is when I start thinking about what I would do if my partner actually left. Or, like, I'll notice my appetite decreases and, like, all I want to do is sleep. That's how I know my mood is going down, and that's when the thoughts show up.
Therapist: Go ahead and write those down in the space provided. [Pause] Treat those predictors as the signal to take out this safety plan and use it. Let's go back to the first question on the plan. Things that can be helpful. Can we specify further?
Adrian: Yes, so I put, "Call my sister, Abbey, listen to my favorite Spotify playlist"―it's called "easy alternative"―"binge-watch a show on Netflix or play Minecraft on my phone."
Therapist: That's great, Adrian! Many of those distractors are activities you would do alone, and we know that withdrawing socially is a warning sign for you. Can we add something helpful that involves others?
Adrian: Yeah, okay, good point. I could go to the gym? I always feel good when I'm at the gym and that way I'm, like, out in public and around other people.
Therapist: Okay! Distractions can help us when emotional pain threatens to become overwhelming or when a problem can't be solved right away. So, can we talk about what you'll do if you continue to feel overwhelmed or the thoughts persist? [Pause] Do you have someone you trust to contact? [Pause]
Adrian: Abbey for sure. She knows I struggle with gambling―and about my mental health―and she spends some time on the phone with me, like, talking through things. Another time, she's even dragged me out of bed.
Therapist: Abbey sounds like a great support. Do you have any mental health services you access? Like your nearest emergency room or crisis lines that you could call or text?
Adrian: I do live close to General Hospital, although I don't think I'd go there. I could call the Crisis Services Canada line for help …
Therapist: Let's add Crisis Services Canada to the plan too. It might be a good idea to share this plan with Abbey, in the event you need support. What other social activities can you access?
Adrian: Sometimes I go to the mall and I walk around. Being around all the people at the mall makes me feel less alone.
Therapist: Absolutely! Okay, I think we have a good start here. Do you agree? Information that you can use the next time you're feeling down and are experiencing thoughts of death and dying?
Adrian: I think so. Like, I already know all of these things, but it's helpful to have them laid out this way on paper for times when I'm not able to come up with this stuff on my own. It can be hard to think of when I'm upset.
Therapist: So, this plan is something you imagine yourself using in those difficult moments?
Adrian: I think so. I'll tell Abbey about it too.
Use a clear and direct approach to questioning your client (Dazzi et al., 2014). As they provide answers, reflect on their answers to identify factors that might influence their risk level (Bischof et al. 2016; Brandt & Fischer, 2017; Frank et al., 1991; Kausch, 2003; Ledgerwood & Petry, 2004; Manning et al., 2015; Moghaddam et al., 2015).
Sample questions to identify factors that might influence a client’s risk level include the following (Bischof et al. 2016; Brandt & Fischer, 2017; Frank et al., 1991; Kausch, 2003; Ledgerwood & Petry, 2004; Manning et al., 2015; Moghaddam et al., 2015):
- Does this client have a mental health diagnosis, specifically mood disorders and personality disorders?
- Does this client have a substance use problem?
- Is this client receiving gambling treatment?
- Does this client have an impulsivity problem or ADHD?
- Is there a family or relationship conflict?
- Did this client start gambling at an early age?
- Does this client steal to support their gambling?
- Is this client dealing with significant debt?
- Is the patient hopeless?
- Does the client have the capacity to act?
It is important to recognize that the risk assessment only reflects your client’s suicide risk at a specific point in time (Jacobs et al., 2010). For this reason, it is a good idea to repeat the risk assessment at important life stages, such as following a change in clinical status or during a period of acute or extreme stress (e.g., after a significant loss) (Bartlett & Siegfried, 2012; Jacobs et al., 2010; Monk & Samra, 2007; Stanley & Brown, 2012).
During the risk assessments, consider your client’s risk relative to a similar population, such as all clients who are receiving care for problem gambling (i.e., their risk status) and their risk compared to their own personal baseline or to other times in their life (i.e., their risk state) (Pisani, et al., 2016; Zaheer et al., 2017).
Intervention for high-risk clients
If the risk assessment leads you to determine that your client is at high risk of suicide, make sure that someone is with the client in a safe, secure room while you contact a psychiatrist with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and/or arrange for an ambulance to bring the client to the hospital (Hirschfeld & Russell, 1997).
If a client who is acutely suicidal refuses help, ask them about their access to lethal means, such as weapons or medications. Do what you can to make them inaccessible to the client. Call the police to help protect their safety (Hirschfeld & Russell, 1997).
If the risk of suicide is high but not imminent, obtain your client’s permission to contact a family member or another person who is close to them. Inform this person of the problem and suggest they remain alert and available to help your client deal with the problem (Hirschfeld & Russell, 1997).
Suggest to your client that they connect more frequently with you and let them know you are there to help them stay safe.
Discuss the various options available to reduce their suicide risk. Some of these options (such as pharmacological therapy) may require you to refer them to specialized services (Hirschfeld & Russell, 1997). Keep in mind that some clients are at higher risk of suicide in the days after they start psychiatric medications, so monitor them closely to identify potential problems as early as possible.
Effective approaches to suicide risk reduction:
- cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT; Jacobs et al., 2010; Bolton et al., 2015; Zalsman et al., 2016; Meerwijk et al., 2016)
- manual-assisted cognitive therapy (Zalsman et al., 2016)
- dialectical behaviour therapy (clients with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder) (Jacobs et al., 2010; Meerwijk et al., 2016; Zalsman et al., 2016)
- group therapy (with elements of CBT, DBT and problem-solving therapy) (Bolton et al., 2015; Zalsman et al., 2016)
- family-based approaches (Zalsman et al., 2016)
- active outreach (e.g., postcards, phone calls, and home visits) (Meerwijk et al., 2016)
- medications (e.g., antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, lithium) (Jacobs et al., 2010; Zalsman et al., 2016)
- electroconvulsive therapy (clients with treatment-resistant depression or intractable suicidal thoughts) (Bolton et al., 2015; Jacobs et al., 2010)
- means restriction (Jacobs et al., 2010; Zalsman et al., 2016).
Once you have addressed your client’s immediate risk, focus on protective factors. For example, work with them to build their social support network and their coping and problem-solving skills (Jacobs et al., 2010; Kleiman & Liu, 2013; Kleiman & Liu, 2014; World Health Organization, 2014).
Developing the safety plan
After conducting the risk assessment, work with your client to develop a safety plan (Mann, 2012; Monk & Samra, 2007). This will help you gather information and identify resources your client can use in a crisis situation. Consider the following areas (Stanley & Brown, 2012):
- warning signs of an imminent crisis
- coping skills that help reduce distress in a crisis
- contact information for people who can help during a crisis
- contact information for mental health professionals or emergency resources (e.g., hotlines)
- potential lethal means the client should avoid
- ways to address practical concerns, such as people who can pay rent or feed pets if the client is in the hospital
- a list of crisis centres available 24 hours a day in Canada to keep within reach in case of emergency.
Once you have developed the safety plan, ask your client to consider whether the components are useful and realistic to them (Stanley & Brown, 2012).
Give the client multiple copies of the safety plan to keep in locations they can access easily in a crisis (e.g., wallet, nightstand and smartphone) and send to everyone who is listed in the plan. Revisit the safety plan with them at each visit to ensure it remains relevant and up to date (Stanley & Brown, 2012).
Dealing with a client emergency
Having a client who makes a suicide attempt or dies as a result of suicide can result in feelings of guilt, shame, disbelief, incompetence, anger, depression and fear for the clinician (Kleespies & Dettmer, 2000). In some cases, the clinician can exhibit symptoms that are similar to those of clients with post-traumatic stress.
Proper training of clinicians who work with high-risk clients should include a comprehensive orientation on the topic as well as a mentorship model of training and supervision that includes role modelling of healthy responses to a client’s suicide attempt or death (Kleespies & Dettmer, 2000).
Agencies with clients who may be at risk of suicide also should provide frequent opportunities for clinicians to discuss clients they consider to be at risk, so that team members can express their emotional responses to the work, learn from each other and offer support. Effective approaches to coping with a client’s suicide include talking with a colleague or colleagues who knew the client or who experienced a similar situation, performing a post-event case review, and seeking the support of a family member or other loved one (Kleespies & Dettmer, 2000).
Clinical simulation video
This video clip shows a fictitious therapist and client session for teaching purposes.
In this scenario, the clinician and client (Joseph) have worked together for many months and have developed a trusting therapeutic relationship. Since he presented as passively suicidal in the past, they have created a list of emergency contacts. In the video clip, the client presents with a flat affect and with thoughts of suicide. The clinician asks the client directly about the frequency of his suicidal thoughts and asks whether he has any plans for acting on them. The clinician then reviews options for further support and helps Joseph identify various coping strategies.
After providing the necessary referrals and supports, the clinician will continue to check in with the client regularly, closely monitor his mental status, document the plan thoroughly and provide an update to the inter-professional team (including the psychiatrist) about the client’s current risk level and plan.
Risk assessment tools
The following tools are available for clinicians to use during a suicide risk assessment:
- Suicide Assessment Five-Step Evaluation and Triage (SAFE-T) for Mental Health Professionals. This two-page resource lists risk and protective factors, topics to cover during a suicide risk assessment, interventions that can be used at different risk levels and various resources for clinicians. A SAFE-T pocket card and a mobile app are also available. The SAFE-T tool was developed by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Screening for Mental Health Inc. Learn more about SAFE-T tool.
- Depressive Symptom Index: Suicidality Subscale (DSI-SS). This index can help identify and prevent suicidal ideation. It consists of four items that assess the presence and severity of suicidal thoughts, plans and urges. Each item consists of a group of statements with scores that reflect the severity of suicidality. The tool was developed by the Laboratory for the Study and Prevention of Suicide-related Conditions and Behaviors in Florida. Learn more about the DSI-SS.
- Suicidal Ideation Attributes Scale (SIDAS). This scale identifies the presence and severity of suicidal thoughts. The scale includes five items that target different attributes of suicidal thoughts, such as frequency, controllability, closeness to attempt, level of distress associated with the thoughts and impact on daily functioning. Responses are measured on a 10-point scale, with higher total scores reflecting more severe suicidal thoughts. This tool was developed by the Australian National University. Learn more about the SIDAS scale. Reference: Van Spijker, B.A.J., Batterham, P.J., Calear, A.L., Farrer, L., Christensen, H., Reynolds, J. & Kerkhof, A.J.F.M. (2014). The Suicidal Ideation Attributes Scale (SIDAS): Community-based validation study of a new scale for the measurement of suicidal ideation. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 44 (4), 408-419.
Safety planning tools
You can use the following tools when developing a safety plan:
- Holistic Crisis Planning toolkit is a comprehensive set of resources and templates for holistic crisis planning with youth and their families. It provides an overview of the guiding principles of person- and family-centred holistic crisis planning and the stages of change, as well as various templates for safety planning, communicating with clients and family members, gathering demographic information and more. The tools and approach were originally developed by Kappy Madenwald of Madenwald Consulting, LLC for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services and have since been updated and adapted for use by human and social services agencies in the Region of Peel in Ontario. Learn more about the holistic crisis planning toolkit.
- The Safety Planning Intervention (www.suicidesafetyplan.com) consists of a list of coping strategies and sources of support that your clients can use to cope during a crisis. This tool lists the warning signs of a suicidal crisis, coping strategies, as well as people and settings that can help distract from suicidal thoughts or help cope during a crisis. The tool was evaluated in a variety of settings and was adapted for use with a variety of client populations. The intervention was developed by researchers at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and University of Pennsylvania’s Perleman School of Medicine and was identified as a best practice by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center/American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Best Practices Registry for Suicide Prevention. http://www.suicidesafetyplan.com/.
The following templates are also available for use by clinicians and their clients:
- My Support Numbers helps clients identify and list the individuals they can contact during a crisis. This template is part of the Wellness and Comfort Activities Toolkit created by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Portico Network, with resources also available in French.
- Be Safe is an Ontario-based mobile application designed for young people by the London Service Collaborative and mindyourmind in partnership with a group of youth and professionals. Available as a free download for both IOS and Android platforms, it helps young clients create a safety plan and access information about local mental health and addiction resources. It includes a decision-making aid that can be used during a crisis and helps clients create a personalized “get help script.”
- Alternative Comfort Activities Check List provides a list of wellness-promoting activities that can bring comfort to clients during difficult times and includes a planning calendar. This template is part of the Wellness and Comfort Activities Toolkit created by CAMH's Portico Network, with resources also available in French.
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