A standardized tool to assess suicide risk will soon be tested at health care facilities including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa as workers try to keep pace with an increasing demand for mental health care.

Dr. Mario Cappelli, a clinical psychologist who serves as the Director of Mental Health at CHEO, helped create the tool, the first of its kind developed for young people.

Suicide prevention

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Cappelli, who shared the tool at a suicide prevention forum in Ottawa on Thursday, said frontline workers use it to assess the risk of suicide in emergency departments. The need is drastic, he added.

“It’s pretty clear there’s no standard of practice or tool to help guide the assessment or disposition of mental health concerns within the emergency departments,” said Cappelli, which includes CHEO.

The void has increasingly worried health care experts who see the number of suicides rise through the last decade.

Research indicates there are 500 suicides per year in Canada and 68 suicide victims in Ottawa each year, according to information shared Thursday.

Epidemiologist Jacqueline Willmore, who works with Ottawa Public Health, said suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people between 15 and 24 years old. Only vehicle collisions cause more deaths in that age bracket.

Willmore also said the number of suicides each year has increased between 2003 and 2012.

Suicide risk assessment tool

The Heads-ED enables physicians to take a psycho-social history that aids in decisions regarding patient disposition. It's a validated interview tool that makes it easy for doctors to identify children/youth with mental health issues, as well as find local help and resources.

The standardized online assessment tool is a survey that assesses a patient’s behaviour, feelings and background and Cappelli wants to see facilities use it across the country and even internationally.

The need for a tool to assess suicide risk is higher for centres that treat youth because a growing number of young people visit the emergency room with mental health needs, according to the experts.

Hospitals also have trouble meeting demand, according to Dr. Allison Kennedy, a psychologist who works at the CHEO Research Institute.

'Suicide contagion' partial cause of problem among youth

Dr. Mario Cappelli, CHEO

Dr. Mario Cappelli, who heads mental health research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, helped create the Heads-ED tool. (CHEO Research Institute)

That problem has become more apparent because there is a “suicide contagion” among youth, said Dr. Ian Colman, the Canada Research Chair in mental health epidemiology.

He told the forum youth are more likely to consider taking their lives when they learn of others who have done so.

“One person’s suicide or suicidal behaviour may influence others to start thinking about suicide or to attempt suicide,” Colman said.

Colman said suicide contagion could be either a personal connection or form of communication between people, or learning of a suicide through media.