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Emerg Med Clin North Am. 1991 Feb;9(1):107-21.

Depression and suicide assessment.

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Department of Emergency Medicine, Kern Medical Center, Bakersfield, California.


Depressed patients and suicidal patients are common Emergency Department patrons with the potential for serious morbidity or death. Dysphoric mood, vegetative symptoms, and negative perceptions of oneself, the environment, and the future are characteristic of depression. Often, the patient is unaware of the depression and presents with a variety of somatic complaints, chronic fatigue, or pain syndromes. In these instances, the physician must consider the diagnosis of depression and ask the patient about any history of depressive symptoms. In all depressed patients, a careful history and physical examination are needed to identify any drugs or concurrent medical illnesses which might cause or exacerbate the depression. If depression is suspected or if the patient presents after a suicide attempt, then a thorough evaluation of suicide potential is mandatory. Several risk factors for completed suicide exist. Male sex, age under 19 or over 45, few social supports, and a history of previous suicide attempts are all factors associated with increased suicide rates. Concurrent chronic or severe medical illnesses and certain psychiatric illnesses, notably depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, also increase an individual's risk for suicide. The method of suicide attempt and the chance for rescue must also be considered when determining risk as well as the presence of an organized plan. Acute psychosis in the suicidal patient is an ominous finding and these patients should be admitted to the hospital. The physician must adopt an empathetic and nonjudgmental attitude when caring for potentially suicidal patients. Disposition can be determined after careful evaluation of risk factors, circumstances surrounding the attempt, and the patient's current feelings. Consultation with a psychiatrist or another mental health professional is desirable for any potentially suicidal patient. Many such patients can be safely treated as outpatients with proper referral; certain high-risk individuals will need to be admitted to the hospital. The decision to either hospitalize or discharge can be difficult and the emergency physician should admit the patient if doubt exists.

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