Background: Depression is the most frequent psychiatric disorder in the elderly. It is the reason for most suicides in this age group.
Method: We performed a representative survey in primary care. Two written case vignettes were presented to 170 family physicians in face-to-face interviews which took place in their practices. The case vignettes described either (Case 1) a mildly depressed otherwise healthy old patient or a severely depressed patient (Case 2) with somatic comorbidity. Afterwards the interviewers asked standardized open questions. The physicians were not let into the mental health focus of the study.
Results: The response rate was 77.6%. Depression was considered for primary or differential diagnosis by 91.2% of the physicians in Case 1 and by 70% in Case 2 (chi2-test; p < 0.01). For further anamnesis, only 2.4% of the physicians were interested in suicidal ideation of the patient. When directly asked at the end of the interview, 76.9% of the physicians said they would talk about suicide. Those who would not, thought that the patient would communicate suicidal intent himself/herself, or they feared to induce suicide by asking directly.
Conclusion: Thinking of suicidality and its prevention is not uppermost in the physicians' mind. Therefore, and also with regard to the relatively high rate of depression recognition, we conclude that educational means should not only focus on the recognition and screening of depression, but also on the management--'how to talk about...'--of complex problems like suicide in the elderly, in order to change suicide rates.