Managing drug users’ high suicide risk: new NDARC resource assists co-ordinated approach

Image - Managing drug users’ high suicide risk: new NDARC resource assists co-ordinated approach
Date Published:
29 Jul 2015
Contact person:
Marion Downey
+61 401 713 850

• almost half of long-term heroin users have previously attempted suicide, compared with 3% of the general population
• one in 10 considers suicide
• one in 20 has a suicide plan

A new tool to assess and manage suicide risk, developed by a team of researchers at the National and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW in partnership with the Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies (NADA), can help residential alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services to better assist their clients.

Suicide is a leading cause of death among people who abuse drugs and alcohol, but NDARC’s Professor Shane Darke says there is little consistency in how drug services manage suicide risk. He and Dr Joanne Ross led a study of residential AOD rehabilitation services in Australia1, which highlighted that many services did not have clear documented policies and procedures in place.

The Suicide Assessment Kit (SAK): A comprehensive assessment and policy development package is designed to address this gap.

A recent long-term cohort study also led by Professor Darke2 and colleagues found that almost half of long-term heroin users have previously attempted suicide, whereas only 3.2% of the general Australian population reported a suicide attempt in their lifetime. Furthermore, one in 10 heroin users reported current suicidal ideation and one in 20 had a suicide plan – making it seven times more likely to have a plan to end their lives compared to the general population.

“Drug users are much more likely to both attempt and complete suicide compared to the general population,” said Professor Darke. “This poses a major clinical challenge for AOD treatment services."
The SAK aims to provide AOD workers with evidence-based resources to assist them in the assessment and management of suicide risk.

The kit consists of a Suicide Risk Screener, a Suicide Risk Formulation Template as well as supporting documents to manage suicide risk. It also contains a Suicide Policies and Procedures Pro-forma to ensure that appropriate policies are in place to support staff using the SAK tools.

Three videos provide comprehensive instructions about how to use the SAK, role-plays demonstrating the use of the Suicide Risk Screener, as well as interviews with AOD treatment providers about their process of implementing the SAK into their service.

“We received extremely positive feedback from AOD workers who evaluated the SAK, perceiving this resource to be both useful and relevant to their clinical practice”, said Professor Darke.

One of the providers who have trialled the SAK is Triple Care Farm in New South Wales.  Sarah Green, Senior Psychologist at Triple Care Farm said, "The SAK has been an invaluable asset to our service, guiding policy and procedure around suicide assessment and intervention, and training our staff in a common language and approach to helping clients at risk of suicide. It has also helped our service move from a MA to EA rating in several accreditation categories."

Professor Darke hopes the kit will soon be used by many treatment services across Australia. “It is our hope that the SAK will make a significant contribution to the assessment and management of suicide risk within treatment services.”

The kit will be formally launched at the NDARC Annual Research Symposium on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 in Sydney.

The SAK and accompanying videos are now available for download from the NDARC website at