Discussion: Assessing Suicide Risk


As a social worker, you will likely at some point have a client with a positive suicide risk assessment. Many individuals with suicidal ideation also have a plan, and that plan may be imminent. Even when the risk is not urgent at a given moment, current research shows that most suicides occur within 3 months of the risk being assessed within a formal appointment. Ideation can quickly become a suicide.

For this Discussion, you view an initial suicide risk assessment. As you evaluate the social worker’s actions, imagine yourself in their place. What would you do, and why?

To prepare:

  • Explore an evidence-based tool about suicide risk assessment and safety planning. See the Week 3 document Suggested Further Reading for SOCW 6090 (PDF) for a list of resources to review.
  • Watch the “Suicide Assessment Interview” segment in the Sommers-Flanagan (2014) video to assess how it compares to your findings.
  • Access the Walden Library to research scholarly resources related to suicide and Native American populations.

By Day 3

Post a response in which you address the following:

  • Identify elements of Dr. Sommers-Flanagan’s suicide risk assessment.
  • Describe any personal emotional responses you would have to Tommi’s revelations and reflect on reasons you might experience these emotions.
  • Describe the elements of safety planning that you would put in place as Tommi’s social worker in the first week and in the first months.
  • Identify a suicide risk assessment tool you would use at future sessions to identify changes in her risk level. Explain why you would use this tool.
  • Explain any adjustments or enhancements that might be helpful given Tommi’s cultural background. Support your ideas with scholarly resources.


Required Readings

Morrison, J. (2014). Diagnosis made easier: Principles and techniques for mental health clinicians (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Chapter 10, “Diagnosis and the Mental Status Exam” (pp. 119–126)
Chapter 17, “Beyond Diagnosis: Compliance, Suicide, Violence” (pp. 271–280)

American Psychiatric Association. (2013s). Use of the manual. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.UseofDSM5

American Psychiatric Association. (2013b). Assessment measures. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.AssessmentMeasures

Focus on the “Cross-Cutting Symptom Measures” section.

Chu, J., Floyd, R., Diep, H., Pardo, S., Goldblum, P., & Bongar, B. (2013). A tool for the culturally competent assessment of suicide: The Cultural Assessment of Risk for Suicide (CARS) measure. Psychological Assessment, 25(2), 424–434. doi:10.1037/a0031264

Osteen, P. J., Jacobson, J. M., & Sharpe, T. L. (2014). Suicide prevention in social work education: How prepared are social work students?. Journal of Social Work Education, 50(2), 349-364.

Blackboard. (2018). Collaborate Ultra help for moderators. Retrieved from https://help.blackboard.com/Collaborate/Ultra/Moderator

Note: Beginning in Week 4, you will be using a feature in your online classroom called Collaborate Ultra. Your Instructor will assign you a partner and then give you moderator access to a Collaborate Ultra meeting room. This link provides an overview and help features for use in the moderator role.

Document: Case Collaboration Meeting Guidelines (Word document)

Document: Collaborating With Your Partner (PDF)

Document: Diagnostic Summary Example (Word document)

Note: This is an example of a diagnostic summary that can be used as a template for Part I of the Assignment.    

Required Media

Accessible player –Downloads–Download Video w/CCDownload AudioDownload TranscriptLaureate Education (Producer). (2018b). Psychopathology and diagnosis for social work practice podcast: The diagnostic interview, the mental status exam, risk and safety assessments [Audio podcast]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

MedLecturesMadeEasy. (2017, May 29). Mental status exam [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/RdmG739KFF8 

Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (Producers). (2014). Clinical interviewing: Intake, assessment and therapeutic alliance [Video file].

Note: You will access this e-book from the Walden Library databases.
Watch the “Suicide Assessment Interview” segment by clicking the applicable link under the chapters tab. This is the interview with Tommi, which will be used for the Discussion.
Watch the “Mental Status Examination” segment by clicking the applicable link under the chapters tab. This is the case of Carl, which will be used for the Application.

Optional Resources

First, M. B. (2014). Handbook of differential diagnosis. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association

Chapter 1, “Differential Diagnosis Step by Step” (pp. 14–24)

Document: Suggested Further Reading for SOCW 6090 (PDF)

Note: This is the same document introduced in Week 1.

  The Diagnostic Interview: The Mental Status Exam, Risk and Safety Assessments The Diagnostic Interview: The Mental Status Exam, Risk and Safety Assessments Program Transcript

DIANE RANES: As you will quickly realize, professional diagnosis is far more than just linking a person with a diagnostic label. In fact, linking an individual to a diagnostic label without a complete professional process is directly in violation of many social work ethical codes. Professional diagnosis is a broad and a continuous process that is actually closer to developing a working hypothesis than to labeling. Professionals form their initial diagnostic hypothesis, and they continue to refine it using evidence-based tools or validating it over time in the treatment process. The professional diagnostic process starts with very good data gathering, including a number of different kinds of elements that you might not be familiar with. Diagnosis starts with a particular type of interview called a diagnostic or psychiatric interview. And that interview uses many elements from a biopsychosocial assessment. But it also includes some unique parts like the mental status exam, which is a structured way of assessing mental functions such as memory, speech, thought processes, affect, and orientation. The psychiatric interview also includes details of symptom occurrence and any other psychiatric or family histories of psychiatric issues. Gathering complete information is followed by a careful analysis, which is called a differential diagnosis. That aspect of diagnostic thinking is about carefully considering each of the many possible conditions that a client might have in weighing the most likely possibilities. Especially in diagnosis, you are searching for patterns of symptoms and other distinguishing features which best explain an illness. So the logical process of decision making that you use to narrow down choices is this decision tree, which is simply a way of step-by-step considering alternative diagnoses that might have similar symptoms. Sometimes the decision trees are based on preexisting models done by psychiatric experts. These are especially helpful when you’re new to the process. So within a decision tree process, you’re simply comparing and contrasting the symptoms and the observations from your mental status exam to the DSM V’s knowledge base, criteria by criteria. And often you’re looking at several possibilities. A decision tree simply helps you not miss any important steps by going through the options one at a time. The logical process of analysis with or without a decision tree helps the diagnostician avoid error, especially familiarity bias and to generally keep an open mind. That is especially important when you have an early idea about a diagnosis that you think might be accurate. Not jumping to conclusions too © 2018 Laureate Education, Inc. 1                                         The Diagnostic Interview: The Mental Status Exam, Risk and Safety Assessments quickly guards against making mistaken diagnoses, which can be very harmful. And these are called false positives. Remember too, that diagnosis is continuous. While a professional diagnosis starts at a particular moment in time, when the client comes to you for help, it’s not a static process. That initial moment is like taking a photograph. It represents only a small sample of an individual’s total functioning. In diagnosis, we look in depth at the last 12 months of a person’s functioning. But the story does not end there. Past information can help to confirm a diagnosis, as in a bipolar disorder where a person sometimes has 10 years of mistaken diagnosis before a correct one is made. Current and ongoing functioning is even more reliable than past history in validating a diagnosis. If a person responds well to the treatment plan, more confirmatory information should emerge. If not, the entire process should be reviewed. If we believe that individuals change and that they are impacted by everything around them, then it’s easy to recognize that many initial diagnoses might need regular reevaluation. That matters even when an illness has more enduring features as in schizophrenia, which is a lifelong disorder. Even here, the person may be reaching a phase of partial remission. And we’ll need that milestone added to the diagnosis to understand the cycles. Even in the short-term conditions such as an adjustment disorder, the DSM will have guideline information as to what might occur in treatment response. In adjustment disorder, a person should be substantially recovered within six months’ time. Viewing diagnosis in this continuous, ongoing and integrated way will avoid error. You’ll find that quality treatment requires tracking progress. And treatment plans often need adjusting for all kinds of unforeseen events. Diagnosis can be changed when new information comes into the picture. A diagnostic interview also uses evidence-based tools to ask about risk situations, whether those are caused by violence, general safety, or the risk of death by suicide. You probably already know that the World Health Organization has identified depression as the leading mental health problem worldwide. Nearly one in 10 people worldwide has a mental disorder. And within those who are ill, the World Health Organization considers clinical depression and suicide risk as the top priorities worldwide. Here in the United States, the National Institute of Mental Health tell us that the classic form of depression, which is major depressive disorder, impacts about 16 million adults aged 18 or older in one year alone– only one year, and that is only one of the unipolar depressive illnesses, and only one cause of suicide. Suicide risk is on the rise in the United States overall and within many special © 2018 Laureate Education, Inc. 2                       The Diagnostic Interview: The Mental Status Exam, Risk and Safety Assessments populations. While most nonprofessionals think of suicide as an inherent part of a mood disorder, suicidality is very common in many other types of mental disorders. Suicide attempts are common in borderline disorders, in bipolar disorders, in PTSD, in schizophrenia, and in many other conditions and situations. And risk escalates even further in all situations if substance use is involved. Some individuals will also develop the desire to kill themselves as part of receiving an intractable physical illness diagnosis. Suicide risk is obviously on a wide continuum, ranging from recurrent vague wishes to be dead to direct plans and very overt suicidal behaviors. Even chronic self-harm without suicide intention can easily escalate to a direct attempt to die. We also know that the risk of suicide is very high in the six months after a person has seen a medical provider, and even after they have been admitted to suicidal ideation treatments. Suicide risk remains very high after discharge from hospital stays and from other forms of active treatment. Sadly, few states and few mental health professionals have been adequately trained in suicide prevention in response 

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