Suicidal ideation among older primary care patients

J Am Geriatr Soc. 1996 Oct;44(10):1205-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.1996.tb01370.x.


Objective: To describe the prevalence and sociodemographic and clinical correlates of suicidal ideation among older primary care patients.

Design: Baseline screening for depressive symptoms, functional status, and suicidal ideation, with prospective assessment of mortality.

Setting: An academic primary care group practice at an ambulatory care clinic.

Participants: 301 patients who screened positive for depression and a random sample of 101 patients who screened negative from among 3767 patients aged 60 and older who completed screening for depression during routine office visits.

Measurements: Centers for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) scale, Hamilton Depression Rating (HAM-D) scale, Sickness Impact Profile (SIP), structured psychiatric interview, sociodemographic and clinical variables, and mortality.

Results: Among the 301 patients with CES-D scores > or = 16, 14 (4.6%) reported suicidal ideation and received urgent evaluation by mental health professionals. The estimated prevalence of suicidal ideation in this cohort of older primary care patients was 0.7 to 1.2%. All patients with suicidal ideation had evidence of a current affective disorder, and nearly all had moderate to severe functional impairment. However, even though all 14 patients endorsed suicidal ideation, corresponding HAM-D scores ranged from 3 to 40, and only four of 14 met diagnostic criteria for major depression. The most common suicide plan involved use of a hand gun. Depressed patients with suicidal ideation did not differ significantly from depressed non-suicidal patients on any of the following variables: age, gender, race, education, alcohol abuse, cognitive impairment, or mean CES-D, HAM-D, or SIP scores. None of the suicidal patients had died within 12 months of the screening date.

Conclusion: The prevalence of suicidal ideation was about 1% among this cohort of older primary care patients, and the prevalence approaches 5% among those older adults who report significant symptoms of depression. However, asking patients directly about the presence of active suicidal ideation appears to be the only effective means of identifying those at risk.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Ambulatory Care Facilities
  • Depressive Disorder / classification
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Primary Health Care
  • Random Allocation
  • Suicide / psychology*