Reducing suicide risk after psychiatric hospitalization

Suicide risk assessment prior to discharge is one in a ‘bundle’ of preventive measures

Tony Salvatore, MA is the suicide prevention specialist for Montgomery County Emergency Service, Nor­ristown, Penn.

E-mail Tony at

Reference: http://www.behaviouralnet; July-August, 2012

reducing risk after hospitalisation

One of the ironies of suicide prevention is that inpatient psychiatric care,  the principal means of as­suring safety and stabilization to acutely suicidal individuals, leaves them at high risk of suicide after discharge. One source put it this way: “The risk of suicide is higher during the period immediately following discharge… than at any other time in a service user’s life.” (1) Post-discharge risk even accrues to patients not suicidal at admission.2

There is little data on suicides after a psychiatric hospital discharge in the US, though suicides chat occur within 72 hours after psychiatric hospitalization are tracked by The Joint Commission. Such deaths rose from fewer than 60 in 2005 to just over 100 in 2008.(3) These “sentinel events” trended downward through 2010, which was good news given that total US suicide numbers rose for the same period. However, suicide victims who were inpatients within days of their deaths should have better prospects for survival.

This well-documented risk does not seem to have attracted much attention from providers or public policy makers and administrators.(4) A greater concern is that patients and families may not be aware of the possible danger that may follow some consumers home. The problem of suicide risk after an inpatient  psychiatric  stay and what can be done about it warrant examination.

What is the source of post-discharge suicide risk?

Reasons for suicides after hospitalization include re-exposure to community stressors­, non-adherence, non-engagement with outpatient providers, relapse, and the return of insight regarding the consequences of the mental illness.(5) At discharge the protective factors the hospital offers-around-the-clock structure, supervision, caring, and support are abruptly lost.

Myopic discharge planning can add to risk.   Decisions based  on “stabilization” may overlook risk factors that led to the admission as may discharge planning that focuses more on psychiatric diagnosis than suicidality.

Suicide risk  assessment may not be as thorough prior to discharge as it is at the time of admission. This is problematic as many suicide risk factors specific to serious mental illness are not affected by inpatient treatment. High risk is associated with early stage of illness, good pre-illness functioning, and frequent exacerbations and remissions.(6) Many consumers have a history of suicidal behavior, self-injury, suicide loss, and multiple prior admissions.(7)

Why do post-discharge suicides happen?

There is no evidence that inpatient care prevents suicide after discharge, nor any that it causes suicide. Discharge planning and pre-discharge risk assessment deficits are not causes, either. So what accounts for lethal suicidal behavior in some consumers at a time when they should be on a path to recovery?

The   “Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide”(8) gives insight  into post-discharge suicide. This theory developed by Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., posits that a potentially fatal suicide attempt requires: 1. a sense of burdensomeness, 2. a sense of loneliness and isolation, 3. a sense of fearlessness about lethal self-harm. All three of these conditions rarely occur simultaneously, which is why there are comparatively few suicides. However, they, especially the first two, may be common in those with serious mental illness and especially in those who have received inpa­tient psychiatric care.

Joiner asserts that an intense desire for death may come from the belief that one is a burden to others and/or the belief that one does not belong. Burdensomeness­ arises from sense that one is a liability and not fulfilling expectations or obligations. This may lead to thinking that one’s death may be more valued than one’s life.. Failed belongingness may flow from a strong unmet need for social relationships and a perception that one is not cared for by others. These variables may be exacerbated by hospitalization and may persist in the community.

More than a desire to end one’s life is necessary for a suicide, Joiner  adds. An individual must also be able to take his or her life. This requires overcoming fear, pain, self-injury, and the instinct for self-preservation. This ability is acquired through experiences such as abuse, trauma, and a history of violence and self-harm. It is a by product of past attempts and may also be developed by mentally practicing a suicide plan and rehearsing it by holding means such as a weapon or pills.

The desire to die may lift during hos­pitalisation, but  the capability for lethal self-harm is permanent. Past attempts, abuse, trauma, and violence create a risk baseline that may escalate after discharge. Risk may be amplified be weak supports, rejection by others, and being faced with seemingly unresolvable psycho-social or environmental stressors, as well as folding relapse, resuming alcohol and drug use, and limited engagement by outpatient providers.

What can be done about post­-discharge suicide risk?

Many sound recommendations for addressing suicide risk after hospitalisation have been offered . Immediate treatment, follow-up, and closer monitoring of at-risk consumers returning to the community are most often urged.(9)

A recent review of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy included this recommendation: “Expand efforts to provide effective follow-up care after inpatient discharge of suicidal persons.”(10) Another national report was more specific: “Adopt nationally recognized policies and procedures that best match patients at risk for suicide to follow-up services that begin at or near the time of discharge from … an inpatient psychiatry unit.”(11)

A national suicide prevention organisation issued a broader advisory:(12)

  • Assess suicide risk at admission and again, thoroughly, just prior to discharge
  • Identify sources of support and their willingness and ability to provide
  • Give patient and family instruction about sui­cide risk at discharge and period
  • Explain how patient, family, or supports can access crisis intervention and other help.

Bumgarner and Haygood call  for  the use of a “risk reduction pathway” involving a “bundle” of suicide prevention practices provided to every patient,which at discharge would include:(13)


  • Suicide risk assessment to inform the discharge decision
  • Communication of risk/prevention measures to patients and family members
  • Follow-up with patients after discharge
  • Supports and services in place after discharge

Other resources that come to mind are:

  • Preparation of personal suicide prevention of safety plans at discharge.
  • The availability of peer-run warm lines for use by newly discharged consumers.
  • Access to therapies that have demonstrated suicide prevention potential (e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
  • Peer-led or co-led support groups for those who have made suicide attempts or had an acute episode of suicidality.
  • Training peer specialists as ” gatekeepers”to identify possible warning signs of suicide in other consumers

Inpatient providers must do more to reduce the risk of ‘(outpatient” suicide. Montgomery County Emergency Service, a 73-bed nonprofit psychiatric hospital (Norristown,  Penn.),  has   inaugurated a number of easy-to-replicate practices in recent years. These include a range of suicide prevention education materials for consumers and families, a peer-led inpatient suicide prevention support group, “special discharge instructions” on  suicide  risk, and tighter pre-discharge risk assessment. 

Community-based providers must also help make post-discharge suicide what the National  Action Alliance  for Suicide Prevention recently called a “never event.”(14) In this regard , the Alliance  has called for suicide risk screening to be universal in all behavioral health care settings and that suicide risk be seamlessly addressed along the care continuum until eliminated. This would extend a “risk reduction pathway” from inpatient admission to recovery.

In addition to reducing consumer mortality, a post-discharge suicide prevention effort may reduce readmissions and involuntary hospitalizations, both of which are driven heavily by suicidal  behavior. Of course, it can also improve recovery prospects for inpatients while helping them maintain the hopeful outlook needed to motivate  and maintain  greater  personal wellness.


  1. Crawford, M. “Suicide following discharge from in-patient psychiatric care” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2004(10) 434-438.
  2. Dennehy,J ., Appleby, L ., and Thomas, “Case control study of suicide by discharged psychiatric patients” British Medical Journal 1996 (312).
  3. The Joint Commission, Sentinel Event Data, Event Type by Year, 1995 -Third Quarter 2011. Retrieved on November 30, 2011 from http://www. Event_ Type_Year_ I995_3Q201I.pdf
  4. Litts, D., et al. (Eds.) Suicide Prevention Efforts tor Individuals with Serious Mental Illness: Roles for the State Mental Health Authority. Alexandria, Vi-..: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, 2008.
  5. Meehan, J., et al. “Suicide in mental health inpa­tients and within 3 months of discharge” British Journal of Psychiatry 2006 (188) 129-13 4.
  6. Bongar, (Ed.), Suicide; Suicidal behaviour: Personality Assessment; Risk factors; Diagnosis; Prevent ion New· York, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  7. Combs, S., and Romm, H. “Psychiatric inpatient suicide : A literature review” Primary Psychiatry 2007(14) 67-74
  8. Joiner, Why People Die by Suicide Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  9. Priola, S., Sohlman, B., and Wahlbeck, K. “The characteristics of suicides, within a week of discharge alter psychiatric hospitalization – a nationwide register study” BMC Psychiatry 2005(5).
  10. Litts, D., (Ed.), “Charting the Future of Suicide Prevention: A 2010 Progress Review of the National Strategy and Recommendations for the Decade Ahead.” Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc., 2010.
  11. Knesper, D., Continuity of Care for Suicide Prevention and Research: Suicide Attempts and Suicide Deaths Subsequent to Discharge from the Emergency Department or Psychiatry Inpatient Unit . Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc. 2010.
  12.  American Association for Suicidology, Recommendations for Inpatient and Residential Patients Known to be at Elevated Risk for Suicide. Washington, DC, 2005.
  13. Bumgarner, S., and Haywood , “Suicide prevention outside the psychiatry department: A bundled approach” Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare 2009 (September-October).
  14. National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Care in Systems Framework. Newton, MA, 2011.


For help in Australia

CAPS – Talk Suicide Support Service – Free telephone and face to face support      1800 008 255

Salvation Army Care Line     1300 36 36 22

Reach Out

Headspace     Register and chat now at eheadspace, or call 1800 650 890  Headspace

Lifeline    13 11 14

Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78 (24 hour phone counselling and referral)

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Mates in Construction: 1300 642 111

QLife        1800 184 527    Phone & Chat  3.00 pm – 12.00 pm everyday

SANE Australia help

SANE Australia Helpline  –  Talk to a mental health professional (weekdays, 10 am-10 pm AEST) 1800 18 72 63

Helpline chat – Chat online with a mental health professional (weekdays 10 am-10 pm AEST)

Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800 (24 hour phone counselling)

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 (Professional call back service referral line operates seven days a week)

Veterans Line 1800 011 046 (after hours professional telephone crisis counselling for veterans and their families











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