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Resources :: Guide :: Vulnerable and risk sensitive participants :: Risk-sensitive populations :: Suicide threat :: Reporting a suicide threat

Reporting a Suicide Threat

What are signs of a suicide threat?  
The Surgeon General stated that there are far more suicides per year than homicides (over 50%), and suicide is the ninth leading cause of death.  According to the Surgeon General, there are certain groups more likely to attempt suicide, specifically those with mental and/or substance abuse disorders, but suicide victims include the entire spectrum of population from children to the elderly.  Some risk factors are:

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Mental disorders—particularly mood disorders such as
    depression and bipolar disorder
  • Co-occurring mental and alcohol and substance abuse disorders
  • Family history of suicide
  • Hopelessness
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Relational, social, work, or financial loss
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods, especially guns
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of stigma attached to mental and substance abuse disorders and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Influence of significant people—family members, celebrities, peers who have died by suicide—both through direct personal contact or inappropriate media representations
  • Cultural and religious beliefs—for instance, the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Local epidemics of suicide that have a contagious influence
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people

What are my responsibilities to report a suicide threat?
As a researcher, you do not have specific legal responsibilities for reporting a suicide threat. However, you should consider the well-being of your participants and act in their best interests, as stated in the Belmont Report. Often these situations are delicate and require experienced clinicians to council the participant. If you do not have certified experience in helping a suicidal individual, do not council your participant or become involved in the situation. Inappropriate action may put the participant at greater risk. As you are working with an adult, the more appropriate step may be to refer the participant to resources that can help them, such as a hotline or mental health clinic (as the situation warrants) instead of simply calling the police. However, if you become aware of a specific and immediate threat of harm to your participant, you should contact the appropriate authorities.

If you are working in a public school system, there is specific protocol for reporting suicidal behavior.  Please see the Education: Abuse section for more information.

How do I report a suicide threat?
If your participants are at-risk for expressing suicidal intentions, you will need to have protocol in place to provide immediate assistance.  For example, should a participant express suicidal intentions, or discuss suicidal thoughts and feelings, an experienced clinician should be available to assess the individual’s state and refer them to the appropriate resources for help.  Please note that some surveys and instruments, such as the BDI-II, ask participants if they have suicidal thoughts and feelings.  Even though suicide may not be the topic of your research, if you are asking these questions of participants, you need to have a protocol in place for addressing affirmative answers. 

If a participant has expressed suicidal intentions and you do not have the protocol or expertise to handle this situation, please refer the participant to qualified individuals.  For example, if the participant is a U.VA. student, the Elson Student Health Center provides counseling and emergency care.

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