Treating Outpatient Suicidal Adolescents: Guidelines from the Empirical Literature

Article excerpt

Mental health counselors identify treating suicidal clients as one of the most stressful aspects of their work. Treating suicidal adolescents poses a range of additional challenges. Literature on suicidal behavior continues to grow and potentially efficacious treatments are being developed, however clinicians in the field are provided few guidelines for treating suicidal clients. In this paper we provide a brief review of evidenced-based treatments with suicidal adolescents and offer guidelines for the treatment of suicidal adolescents within outpatient settings. We conclude with a brief overview of special considerations for treating adolescents who are suicidal.

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Suicide remains a significant cause of death in the United States, particularly among youth. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15 to 19 year olds (National Center for Health Statistics, 2004), and rates of death from suicide increase with age from childhood through adulthood (Gould, Greenberg, Velting, & Shaffer, 2003). Consistent findings from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that significant numbers (e.g., 16.9%) of high school students reported serious suicidal ideation with plans in the proceeding year (Grunbaum, Kann, Kinches, et al., 2004). Furthermore, Grunbaum et al. (2004) documented that 8.5% of high school students reported attempting suicide within a 12-month period, and 2.9% made an attempt that required medical intervention. Thus, suicide remains a considerable problem among youth.

Suicidal behavior, including ideation and attempts, is one of the most commonly encountered emergencies for the mental health clinician (Beutler, Clarkin, & Bongar, 2000; Pope & Tabachnick, 1993), up to 20% of whom will have a client who dies by suicide during treatment (Campbell, 2006; Chemtob, Hamada, Bauer, Kinney, & Torigoe, 1988). Unfortunately, clinicians are often not adequately prepared for managing and treating suicidal clients (Bongar, 2002). Utilization of inpatient hospitalization for suicidal clients has significantly decreased in recent years due to the effects of managed care and findings that hospitalization confers little to no positive treatment effect (Comtois & Linehan, 2006; Rissmiller, Steer, Ranieri, Rissmiller, & Hogate, 1994). As a result, much of the responsibility for the care of a suicidal client falls upon clinicians working in outpatient care settings. Unfortunately, clinicians lack clear guidelines for treating suicidal persons; particularly suicidal youth. Our primary goals for this review are to provide a brief overview of empirically supported treatments for suicidal adolescents and to offer empirically based guidelines for working with suicidal youth. We will also briefly address special challenges specific to treating adolescents who are suicidal.

EMPIRICALLY SUPPORTED SUICIDE TREATMENT

The empirical literature regarding the treatment of suicidal persons is remarkably sparse, particularly with regard to suicidal adolescents (Gould et al., 2003; Hawton, et al., 1999; Miller & Glinski, 2000). Conclusions drawn from reviews of randomized controlled trials and uncontrolled studies of suicide treatments with adult samples are mixed at best. Generally, it appears as though cognitive-behavioral interventions that incorporate a problem-solving element have promise for reducing suicide ideation, attempts, and symptoms of concomitant disorders (Comtois & Linehan, 2006; Hawton, et al., 1998; Rudd, 2000). Furthermore, in a recent study of cognitive therapy, Brown and colleagues (2007) found that suicidal patients who received l0 sessions of cognitive therapy had significantly fewer suicide attempts and lower rates of depression at 18 months post-treatment. While it would appear that cognitive-behavioral based approaches may be best, other treatment modalities, such as interpersonal psychotherapy, have shown promise for reducing suicidality (e. …