Talisman or taboo: the controversy of the suicide-prevention contract

Harv Rev Psychiatry. Jul-Aug 1998;6(2):78-87. doi: 10.3109/10673229809000314.


The suicide-prevention contract is a widely used but overvalued clinical and risk-management technique. The scant information on this topic in the psychiatric and mental health literature is reviewed, along with the literature on collateral subjects including suicide prediction, medicolegal aspects of treating suicidal patients, the therapeutic alliance, and countertransference with suicidal patients. A group of 112 psychiatrists and psychologists was surveyed about their use of suicide-prevention contracts; the majority of them had never received any formal training on the topic. A combination of factors--the unpredictability of suicide, the many different antecedents to completed suicides, the complex psychological reactions of clinicians (including fear of litigation), the incongruity between clinical and legal usages of the contract concept, and the hazards that come of collapsing a complex treatment process into a few words--limit the applicability of suicide-prevention contracts. We reason that the use of these contracts is based upon subjective belief rather than on objective data or formal training. We recommend an alternative approach to suicide risk management rooted in the well-known and well-defined principles of informed consent.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Mental Health Services
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Risk Factors
  • Risk Management*
  • Suicide / prevention & control*