The overwhelming majority of suicide victims have a diagnosable mental disorder—most commonly a mood or substance use disorder (Chapter 3). Yet, as indicated earlier, most suicide victims do not have their disorder diagnosed or adequately treated at the time of suicide. This section explores the multiple barriers to treatment posed by clinicians in primary care, emergency care, and specialty care.

Barriers in Primary Care

Primary care has become a critical setting for detection of depression and alcohol use disorders (US Preventive Services Task Force, 1996) because of their high prevalence (Murphy, 2000). Primary care refers to family physicians, obstetrician-gynecologists, nurse practitioners, general internists, or pediatricians.


The detection and treatment of depression by primary care physicians is of great relevance to suicidology. Depression evaluation presents the first opportunity for primary care physicians to ask about suicidal ideation, which is one of several symptoms of major depressive disorder (APA, 1994), and a major risk factor for completed suicide (Harris and Barraclough, 1997). Treatment of depression in primary care is associated with reduced rates of completed suicide, according to an uncontrolled ecological study on the Swedish island of Gotland (see discussion in Chapters 7 and 8, Rutz et al., 1989; 1992). The effects of depression treatment in primary care on suicidal behavior are being studied in a controlled clinical trial in the United States. Preliminary results indicate reduced rates of hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and related symptoms of depression in older primary care patients (personal communication, C. Reynolds, G. Alexopoulos, and I. Katz, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 2001).

In primary care, routine screening for depression is not currently recommended for all asymptomatic adults; however, routine screening for depression is recommended if the physician suspects depression or if the patient carries depression risk factors (Beck et al., 1979; Preboth, 2000; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 1996).3 According the American


New recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Task Force (2002, Annals of Internal Medicine 136:760-764) now call for screening for depression in the primary care setting.

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