The objective of the study was to help pediatricians understand and respond to suicidal ideation (SI) in adolescents based on data from 2 widely used screening measures that assessed SI and other psychosocial vulnerabilities in a large, national sample.
Adolescents (ages 11–17 years) completed the Patient Health Questionnaire Modified for Teenagers (PHQ-9M) using the Comprehensive Health and Decision Information System software before their well-child visits. Question 9 asks about past 2-week SI. Their parents filled out the Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC-17P), which screens for a broad range of psychosocial problems. Chi-square analyses and one-way analysis of variances assessed the relationship between SI and psychosocial problems.
Among 5411 adolescents, 266 (4.9%) reported SI at least several days in the past 2 weeks. Among adolescents with SI, 187 (70.3%) reported moderate to very severe depression on the PHQ-9M (≥10), 68.1% were at risk on at least 1 PSC-17P problem subscale, 59.7% on the PSC-17P internalizing scale, 42.9% on PSC-17P overall, 20.6% on PSC-17P externalizing, and 18.5% on PSC-17P attention. Within the subsample endorsing SI nearly all days, 35.7% had a former suicide attempt.
The PHQ-9M identifies a clinically heterogeneous subset of approximately 5% of adolescents who report occasional to frequent SI. The PSC-17P corroborates their high degree of overall risk and offers additional information that can help pediatricians assess clinical severity and range of psychosocial problems. Given our limited knowledge of how to predict and prevent an individual adolescent's suicide, the focus of screening should be to identify and help the subset of patients with chronic psychosocial vulnerability of any type.