Suicide-Focused Assessment and Treatment: An Update for Professionals

Free Webinar | October 20, 2021
McLean Hospital and Stanford University Department of Psychiatry

COVID - 19

The COVID-19 pandemic is emotionally stressful, and can be especially distressing for those already struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to recent data, Americans are reporting increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and fear (Czeisler et al., 2020; Holland, 2020; MHA, 2020).

Suicidal ideation is one of the most concerning symptoms of depression. The CDC recently reported that more than two times as many respondents had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days preceding their June 2020 survey than in the 12 months preceding a survey they had administered in 2018.  The rate was 10.7% in June 2020,  compared to 4.3% in 2018. The rate of suicidal ideation conducted during the Covid-19 survey was particularly high among certain groups, notably young adults aged 18-24 years (25.5%), Hispanic individuals (18.6%), non-Hispanic black individuals (15.1%), unpaid caregivers (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%) (Czeisler et al., 2020).

While it is not known how COVID-19 will impact suicide rates and it may take several years before data are available, there are some communities already seeing a spike in suicide rates in their counties (Vernachio, 2020). Millions of people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic; unemployment and financial loss are linked to suicides. A previous study conducted in 63 countries from 2000-11 showed that suicide risk rose by 20-30% in response to heightened unemployment rates (Kawohl & Nordt, 2020; Nordt et al., 2015).

However, there are steps we can take now to help mitigate suicide risk and protect ourselves and our communities. Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, recently published an article in JAMA Psychiatry, which discusses how increased suicide rates are not an inevitable outcome of the pandemic. Rather, there are specific steps that can be taken now to reduce suicide risk both during the pandemic and in the future. These steps include not only increasing social connectedness and access to mental health care, but also addressing issues such as domestic violence, alcohol and drug use, financial strain, access to firearms, and irresponsible media reporting. As Dr. Moutier explained at the 2020 National Stop A Suicide Today Town Hall, the pandemic could serve as a potential positive catalyst for change, with some “silver linings,” such as normalizing the dialogue surrounding mental health experiences and increasing access to telehealth services.


The CDC recommends some ways to take care of yourself, your friends, and your loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • Connect with others using virtual communication
  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media
  • Take care of your body
  • Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Try to do activities you enjoy

If you have a preexisting mental health condition, you should continue with your treatment and be aware of new or worsening symptoms. Call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row. Moreover, if suicidal thoughts or impulses emerge, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255Click here for additional action steps.


How Clinicians Can Help Mitigate Risk During the Pandemic (Clay, 2020)

  • Screen patients for depression and ask about suicide risk
  • Develop or update safety plans for patients with suicidal ideation
  • Help connect people with family and loved ones
  • Follow telehealth guidelines
  • Educate people about the warning signs for suicide
  • Push for increased mental health services, especially for underserved populations
  • Prioritize self-care for patients, families, and yourself

Support for Health Care Workers and First Responders
The current Covid-19 pandemic is presenting additional mental health challenges to health care workers, including suicide and secondary traumatic stress. Click here to read a recent piece on the topic, which contains suggestions for how you might be able to mitigate suicide risk among your medical colleagues.

On their website, the CDC recommends the following ways responders can reduce secondary traumatic stress reactions:

  • Acknowledge that secondary traumatic stress can impact anyone helping families after a traumatic event.
  • Learn the physical (e.g., fatigue, illness) and mental (e.g., fear, withdrawal, guilt) symptoms.
  • Allow time for you and your family to recover from responding to the pandemic.
  • Create a menu of personal self-care activities that you enjoy, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, or reading a book.
  • Take a break from media coverage of COVID-19.
  • Ask for help is you feel overwhelmed or concerned that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for your family and patients as you did before the outbreak.

Resources for Health Care Workers and First Responders
The Zero Suicide Initiative has compiled a compendium of resources for health and mental health clinicians on providing suicide care during the Covid-19 pandemic. To access these resources, click here.

Additional Resources
Emergency Responders: Tips for Taking Care of Yourself

Disaster Technical Assistance Center

When Helpers Feel Helpless: Mitigating Suicide Risk of Health Care Workers in a Pandemic

‘I Couldn’t Do Anything’: The Virus and an E.R. Doctor’s Suicide