Thoughts about SAD PERSONS Screen

I've gotten a few questions from colleagues and trainees lately about using the SADPERSONS screen. Most recently, a colleague pointed me to an article in Psychiatric Times titled, "APA: Simple Screen Improves Suicide Risk Assessment." The topic seems worthy of a post to think through both the appeal and risks of the SADPERSONS scale.

For those who are not aware of SAD PERSONS, it is a 10-item scale to purports to screen for suicide risk. An individual is given one point for each item for which he or she screens positive:



  • Sex (male)

  • Age less than 19 or greater than 45 years

  • Depression (patient admits to depression or decreased concentration, sleep, appetite and/or libido

  • Previous suicide attempt or psychiatric care

  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

  • Rational thinking loss: psychosis, organic brain syndrome

  • Separated, divorced, or widowed

  • Organized plan or serious attempt

  • No social support

  • Sickness, chronic disease


The word "simple" in headline of this Psychiatric Times article linked above captures what makes the tool sound appealing, especially for the thousands of health care systems that need a quick way to respond to the JCAHO patient safety goal 15 and 15A: "The organization identifies safety risk inherent in its client populations" and "The organization identifies clients at risk for suicide" (see this .pdf for explication of these goals).

From one perspective, there is nothing wrong with using acronym like this. It can remind clinicians (assuming they can remember what all the letters stand for!) of some of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Who can argue with that? However, from a training and clinical perspective, there are a few problems with this approach, especially when the screen is put forward as a scored scale. Let me summarize a few of these. Note that my thinking about some of these concerns is strongly influenced by concerns articulated by my senior (and very brilliant) colleagues in email exchanges we have had about this. I don't claim originality here, just summary:

  1. The "scale" assigns risk level on the basis of a point system: A score of 1 or 2 points indicates low risk, 3-5 points indicates moderate risk, and 7-10 indicates high risk. This approach works under the assumption that these factors are equally weighted. A separated, 46-year old male with diabetes with no depression would have a higher risk level (score=4, moderate), than 40 year-old married woman with chronic depression, current hopelessness who was just released from a psychiatric hospital after a near-hanging. (score=2, low risk).

  2. Having a risk "score" creates conditions for clinicians to rely on a number instead of developing an informed clinical formulation of risk.

  3. The suggestion that risk for suicide can be boiled down to a single number--even for screening purposes--presents a misleading picture of the complexity phenomenon and how to think about it as a clinician.

  4. The evidence that the linked article gathered does not correspond with the alluring headline, "Simple Screen Improves Suicide Risk Assessment." Evidence reported by those who conducted the study was that, after using the computerized screen, nurses tested showed more knowledge about risk factors for suicide. Of course, knowledge about factors is a long way from demonstrating improved assessment. Obviously, the physicians who reported their study at APA the study did not write the headline. The semantic overreach of the headline speaks to the understandable desire to find easy ways of doing hard things.

  5. Finally, from a training perspective, I find acronyms longer that 3 letters almost impossible to remember! SAD PERSONS particularly clumsy, and, IMHO a bit forced. "O" stands for "Organized plan or serious attempt" whereas I would probably make plan a "P" if I were trying to remember it, but of course that's already taken by "P" for "Previous." That often ends up being the problem with trying to make these things fit into an acronym. In a way, this gets back to the theme I've been harping on lately in my posts about teaching and training about needing a basic-science base about how clinicians learn, remember, and use principles or practices we learn. I'd imagine an expert in human memory could graph the inverse relationship between recall rate and number of letters in an acronym--add to that the need to recall these letters that signify words or concepts with high emotional impact.

In summary, while SAD PERSONS may be helpful to some people as a tool for remembering risk factors, it has some serious limitations as risk assessment "scale" and probably as a mnemonic.