The Skill of Risk Assessment

Those in the helping professions often face the question of whether or not our own skills match the needs of those who cross our paths. Determining another person’s needs is an important part of how we serve others. Perhaps our most crucial skill may be the ability to assess self-destructive threats, including suicidal behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for males and the 16th leading cause of death for females in 2004. More than just referring a person for clinical counseling, suicide risk evaluation demands responsibility and attention to detail.

Some suicide risk factors include prior attempts, direct communication of intent, lack of social supports, isolation, and impulsivity. Those experiencing a recent loss or the anniversary of a loss also may be susceptible to self-destructive desires. Meanwhile, those with physical conditions – such as insomnia, chronic pain, progressive illness, and recent childbirth – often may be prone to suicidal thoughts.

Persons often exhibit suicidal impulses because their original coping mechanisms have failed. They often feel desperate and ashamed, and should be approached with a calm and caring attitude. It’s advisable to be clear regarding your plans to refer them for medical evaluation if needed, noting your willingness to walk through this process together. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine a person’s risk:

  • Ask directly if he has thoughts of suicide?
  • Are the thoughts pervasive or intermittent with a definite relationship to a given situation?
  • Does he have a plan? If so, how extensive is it?
  • How lethal is the defined method?
  • Is there access to the identified means?

Depending on the severity of the responses given, it may be prudent to agree to call the police or go to a hospital together. Please feel free to contact our PC&CC counselors us anytime for consultation about suicide risk and referral options.

–Information found in Therapist’s Guide to Clinical Intervention by Sharon L. Johnson.