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Widely Used Screening Tool Shown to Successfully Predict Suicide Attempts

Science Update

man and woman in therapy session

A widely used suicide screening tool can help determine who is most at risk for suicide by pinpointing the threshold at which a person’s suicidal thinking is severe enough to warrant professional intervention, according to a recent study published online ahead of print November 8, 2011, in the American Journal of Psychiatry.


Developing effective suicide prevention strategies is a priority of the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention , a public-private partnership developed to advance the national strategy for suicide prevention. One of its main goals is to more efficiently identify those at risk so as to better target intervention. Standardized, reliable screening tools are needed to achieve that.

The Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) was developed by a team of researchers from Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh to be used as part of the NIMH-funded Treatment of Adolescent Suicide Attempters (TASA) study. It was developed to meet the need for tracking changes in a person’s suicidal thinking and behavior over time, and to determine who is most at risk. The scale addresses the full range of suicidal behavior and thinking, but includes only the most essential, evidence-based items required for thorough assessment. The scale is now widely used for assessing suicidal thinking and behavior across research and practice in both psychiatric and non-psychiatric settings. It is used domestically and internationally by numerous stakeholders such as first responders (e.g., police, EMTs, fire departments), the U.S. Army, National Guards, prisons, hospitals, schools, and judicial systems to better identify those in need and to direct limited resources.

In this current analysis, Kelly Posner Ph.D., of Columbia University, and colleagues compared the C-SSRS to other similar measures, all of which were administered in three separate studies that featured teens who had attempted suicide or adults presenting to emergency rooms with psychiatric problems. They aimed to determine the scale’s validity, reliability and internal consistency, compared to the other measures.

Results of the Study

The researchers found that compared to other measures, the C-SSRS could reliably predict a potential suicide attempt in those who had previously attempted suicide. It also was able to determine clinically meaningful points at which a person may be at risk for an impending suicide attempt, something that other scales have been unable to consistently determine. According to the researchers, this type of predictive information can more precisely identify who needs the most help and when, while saving time and money by not having to refer people for treatment who are not at imminent risk.


This was the first major study showing how well the C-SSRS works with regard to identifying those most at risk for suicidal behavior. It was able to show, for the first time, that behaviors beyond previous suicide attempts—such as self-injury or making preparations for an attempt—may be used as predictors of subsequent suicide attempts.

What’s Next

Because the studies used in this analysis were not widely representative, additional research is needed to replicate the findings among diverse community samples.


Posner K, Brown GK, Stanley B, Brent DA, Yershova KV, Oquendo MA, Currier GW, Melvin GA, Greenhill L, Shen S, Mann JJ. The Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale: Initial Validity and Internal Consistency Findings from Three Multisite Studies with Adolescents and Adults. American Journal of Psychiatry. Online ahead of print Nov 8,2011.