Background It has been argued that primary care practitioners have an important part to play in the prevention of suicide. However, levels of assessment of risk of suicide among patients treated in this setting are generally low.Methods Cross-sectional survey of general practitioners (GPs) and people being treated in primary care who had signs of depression. The study combined open and closed questions on attitudes to screening or being screened for suicidal ideation.Results One hundred and one of 132 patients took part in the survey and 103 of 300 GPs completed a questionnaire. A majority of both GPs and patients stated that people should be screened for suicidal ideation. However, an important minority of patients and GPs stated that asking or being asked such questions made them feel uncomfortable. Less than half of GPs had received formal training on the assessment of suicide risk. GPs told the researchers that barriers to screening included time pressures, culture and language, and concerns about the impact that screening could have on people's mental health. One-quarter of GPs and one-fifth of patients supported the notion that screening for suicidal ideation could induce a person to have thoughts of self-harm.Conclusions GPs and family doctors should screen for suicidal risk among depressed patients and should receive training on how to do this as part of their general training in the assessment and management of mental disorders. Research should be conducted to examine what, if any, effect screening for suicidal ideation has on mental health.