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A Randomized Controlled Trial to Engage in Care of Adolescent Emergency Department Patients With Mental Health Problems That Increase Suicide Risk

Grupp-Phelan, Jacqueline MD, MPH*; McGuire, Leslie MSW; Husky, Mathilde M. PhD; Olfson, Mark MD, MPH§

doi: 10.1097/PEC.0b013e3182767ac8
Original Articles

Background In pediatric emergency departments (EDs), adolescents at risk for suicide often escape detection and successful referral for outpatient mental health care.

Objective This study aimed to assess the effectiveness of a brief, ED-based mental health service engagement intervention to increase linkage to outpatient mental health services.

Design/Methods Adolescents presenting to a pediatric ED who were not currently receiving mental health services were screened for suicide-related risk factors (Columbia Suicide Scale). If positive, youths were then screened for impairment, alcohol use, and depression. Those screening positive on the Columbia Suicide Scale and the alcohol, impairment, or depression screen were randomly assigned to the intervention (short motivational interview, barrier reduction, outpatient appointment established, reminders before scheduled appointment) or standard referral (telephone number for a mental health provider). Study groups were compared with respect to screen acceptability and outpatient mental health care linkage and change in depression symptoms at 60 days after the index ED visit.

Results A total of 204 families were enrolled. Overall, 24 adolescents (12%) screened positive for suicide risk factors and were randomized to the intervention (n = 11) or standard referral (n = 13) groups. The groups did not significantly differ on several measures of screen acceptability. As compared with the standard referral group (15.4%), the intervention group (63.6%) was significantly more likely to attend a mental health appointment during the follow-up period (Fisher exact test, P = 0.03). There was also a nonsignificant trend toward greater improvement of depressive symptoms in the intervention than standard referral group (t = 1.79, df = 18, P = 0.09).

Conclusions When adolescents are identified in the ED with previously unrecognized mental health problems that increase suicide risk, a brief motivational and barrier-reducing intervention improves linkage to outpatient mental health services.

From the *Division of Emergency Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, OH; †AmeriCares, Stamford, CT; ‡Department of Psychology, Aquitaine Institute for Cognitive and Integrative Neuroscience, University of Bordeaux, Place de la Victoire, Bordeaux, France; and §Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York City, NY.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Jacqueline Grupp-Phelan, MD, MPH, Division of Emergency Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 3333 Burnet Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45229-3039 (e-mail:

This study was supported in part by the Columbia TeenScreen Program. registry number: NCT00750412.

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.