Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario

Nursing Best Practice Guidelines

Interview Questions for Assessment of Suicidal Ideation and Plan

A general question about the person’s thoughts and feelings about living is frequently a recommended start to this discussion:

  • Sometimes people feel that life is not worth living. Can you tell me how you feel about your own life?
  • What are some of the aspects of your life that make it worth living?
  • What are some of the aspects of your life that may make you feel or think that your life is not worth living?
  • Do you find yourself wishing for a permanent escape from life?
  • How would that happen for you? What might you do to achieve that?

It is important to continue with additional questions that are actually about self-harm, suicide and death.

  • Do you think about your own death or about dying?
  • Have you ever thought of harming yourself or trying to take your own life?
  • Do you think or feel this way presently?

If the person expresses thoughts of self-harm, and /or suicide, or even if he/ she seems ambivalent (e.g. says “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember” or “maybe, I am not sure” or “sometimes, but not right this moment”), continue with these questions:

  • When did you begin to experience these thoughts and feelings?
  • What happened before you had them?
  • Were there events in your life that preceded this such as a sudden loss or feelings of depression?
  • How frequently have you had these thoughts and feelings?
  • Do these thoughts intrude into your thinking and activities?
  • How strong are they?
  • Can you describe them?
  • Can you stop yourself from having them by distracting yourself with an activity or other more positive thoughts?
  • Have you ever acted upon these thoughts?
  • Do your thoughts command you to act upon them?
  • If you have not acted upon them, how close do you feel you came to acting?
  • What stopped you from acting on them?
  • Have you ever started to act on your self-harm or suicidal thoughts, yet stopped before actually doing it? For example, did you hold a bottle of pills in your hand to take them all but stopped, or go out on a ledge to jump but then stopped?
  • Do you think you might act on these thoughts of self-harm or suicide in the future?
  • What might help you from acting on them?
  • If you did take your own life, what do you imagine would happen after you die to those people who are important to you?
  • Do you have a plan to harm yourself or take your own life? If so, describe your plan.
  • Do you have those methods available to you to take your life, such as over the counter pills, prescription pills, knives or proximity to a balcony, bridge or subway?
  • Have you prepared for your death by writing a note, making a will, practicing the plan, putting your affairs such as your finances in order, or ensuring privacy such that you would unlikely be discovered?
  • Have you told anyone that you are thinking about taking your life or are planning to do this?

If a person has attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm behaviour(s), ask additional questions to assess circumstances surrounding the event(s).

  • What happened in your previous attempts to self-harm or take your life? What led up to it? Were you using alcohol or other substances? What method did you use? Sometimes people have many reasons for harming themselves in addition to wanting to die. What might have been some of your reasons for selfharm or suicide? How severe were your injuries?
  • What were your thoughts just before you harmed yourself?
  • What did you anticipate would be the outcome of your self-harm or suicide attempt? Did you think you would die? What did you think would be the response of others to your self-harm or suicide?
  • Were other people present when you did this?
  • How did you get help afterward? Did you look for it by yourself or did someone else help you?
  • Did you anticipate that you might be discovered? If not, were you found accidentally?
  • How did you feel after your attempt? Did you feel relief or regret at being alive?
  • Did you receive treatment after your attempt? Did you get medical and/ or psychiatric, emergency help?  Were you assessed in an emergency department? Were you cared for in an inpatient/outpatient department?
  • How do you think and feel about your life now? Have things changed for you? Do you see your life in the same way or differently?
  • Are there other times in the past when you’ve tried to harm (or kill) yourself? (If so you can re-ask many of these same questions to assess for similar or varying circumstances and presentations).

For individuals with repeated suicidal thoughts or attempts.

  • How many times have you tried to harm yourself, or tried to take your life?
  • When was the most recent time?
  • What were your thoughts and feelings at the time that you were most serious about suicide?
  • When was your most serious attempt at harming or taking your life?
  • What happened just before you did this, and what happened after?

Assess reasons for living or protective factors for this person.

  • How do you feel about your own future?
  • What would help you to feel or think more positively, optimistically or hopefully about your future?
  • What would make it more (or less) likely that you would try to take your own life?
  • What happens in your life to make you wish to die or to escape from life?
  • What happens in your life to help you to want to live?
  • If you began to have thoughts of harming or killing yourself again, what would you do to prevent them?

For individuals with psychosis, ask specifically about hallucinations and delusions.

  • Can you describe the voices you hear?
  • Can you tell if they are male or female?
  • Can you stop the voices?
  • How many different voices do you hear?
  • Do you hear these voices from within your own mind, or do they seem to come from somewhere outside of you?
  • Do you know who these voices are? Do you recognize them?
  • What do the voices say to you? Do they say anything positive, or do they say negative or hurtful things to you? Do they threaten you or anyone else?
  • How do you cope with the voices? Do you do anything about them?
  • Do they command you to do anything? If so what kinds of things do they ask you to do?
  • Have you ever done what the voices ask you to do? What led you to obey the voices? If you tried to resist them, what made it hard to do?
  • Have there been times when the voices told you to hurt or kill yourself? How frequently has this happened? What happened?

Consider assessing the patient’s potential to harm others in addition to him/ herself.

  • Are you having any thoughts of harming other people?
  • Are there other people you would want to die with you?
  • Are there others who you think would be unable to go on without you?