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J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Jul 25. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05136-x. [Epub ahead of print]

If You Listen, I Will Talk: the Experience of Being Asked About Suicidality During Routine Primary Care.

Author information

Kaiser Permanente Washington Heath Research Institute, Seattle, WA, USA.
Department of Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
Department of Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
4, Seattle, WA, USA.
Kaiser Permanente Washington Heath Research Institute, Seattle, WA, USA.
Department of Preventive Care, Kaiser Permanente Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
Mental Heath & Wellness, Kaiser Permanente Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
Health Services Research & Development (HSR&D), Center of Innovation for Veteran-Centered Value-Driven Care, Veterans Affairs (VA) Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, WA, USA.



Routine population-based screening for depression is an essential part of evolving health care models integrating care for mental health in primary care. Depression instruments often include questions about suicidal thoughts, but how patients experience these questions in primary care is not known and may have implications for accurate identification of patients at risk.


To explore the patient experience of routine population-based depression screening/assessment followed, for some, by suicide risk assessment and discussions with providers.


Qualitative, interview-based study.


Thirty-seven patients from Kaiser Permanente Washington who had recently screened positive for depression on the 2-item Patient Health Questionnaire [PHQ] and completed the full PHQ-9.


Criterion sampling identified patients who had recently completed the PHQ-9 ninth question which asks about the frequency of thoughts about self-harm. Patients completed semi-structured interviews by phone, which were recorded and transcribed. Directive and conventional content analyses were used to apply knowledge from prior research and elucidate new information from interviews; thematic analysis was used to organize key content overall and across groups based on endorsement of suicide ideation.


Four main organizing themes emerged from analyses: (1) Participants believed being asked about suicidality was contextually appropriate and valuable, (2) some participants described a mismatch between their lived experience and the PHQ-9 ninth question, (3) suicidality disclosures involved weighing hope for help against fears of negative consequences, and (4) provider relationships and acts of listening and caring facilitated discussions about suicidality.


All participants believed being asked questions about suicidal thoughts was appropriate, though some who disclosed suicidal thoughts described experiencing stigma and sometimes distanced themselves from suicidality. Direct communication with trusted providers, who listened and expressed empathy, bolstered comfort with disclosure. Future research should consider strategies for reducing stigma and encouraging fearless disclosure among primary care patients experiencing suicidality.


depression screening; qualitative; suicidal ideation; suicidality; suicide assessment


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