Suicide rehearsals: A high-risk psychiatric emergency
Patients who rehearse a suicide provide opportunities for clinical interventions
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A suicide rehearsal is a behavioral enactment of a suicide method, usually as part of a suicide plan. A mental suicide rehearsal is a process that evolves over time into a plan. Patients who are intent on attempting suicide usually do not reveal their plans. However, behavioral rehearsals display specific clinical characteristics that speak louder than the guarded patient’s denials, revealing the patient’s suicide plan (Table).
Suicide rehearsals may precede suicide attempts or suicide completions. The percentage of patients who stage suicide rehearsals before attempting or completing suicide is unknown; however, in my experience, suicide rehearsals are relatively common. This article describes suicide rehearsals, and offers 4 cases that illustrate what clinicians can learn from rehearsals to improve their patients’ safety.
Clinical characteristics of suicide rehearsals
Behavioral enactment of a suicide method
Presumptive acute, high risk of suicide
Severe mental illness
Suicide attempt often within hours or days
Rehearsal usually covert
Rehearsal event or multiple events
The psychology behind suicide rehearsals
Rehearsing suicidal behavior can lower the barrier to a suicide plan, thereby increasing a patient’s resolve and risk. Joiner1 notes that engaging in behavioral or mental suicide rehearsals increases the risk of suicide. Moreover, rehearsals diminish the prohibition against suicidal behavior and the fear of pain and dying. Examples of rehearsal psychology include:
- overcoming ambivalence about dying
- desensitizing anxiety about performing the suicide act
- testing or “perfecting” the method of a planned suicide
- firming one’s resolve to complete suicide.
Other non-lethal motivations include “a cry for help” and self-injurious behaviors motivated by external gains. Patients who do not intend to attempt suicide may openly rehearse low-risk methods, such as superficial cutting.
Suicide rehearsals can be confused with aborted, interrupted, or failed suicide attempts. Suicide rehearsals usually are associated with severe psychiatric illness and high-risk lethal methods of attempting suicide. My experience is that suicide attempts or suicide completions often follow a rehearsal within a few hours or days. However, no short-term suicide risk factors—within hours, days, or weeks—can predict when or if a rehearsed suicide will proceed to a suicide attempt.2
A suicide rehearsal is presumptive evidence that the patient is at acute, high risk for suicide and immediate clinical intervention is necessary. A rehearsal allows the clinician to explore the various methods of suicide that the patient has considered, including prior rehearsals. Knowledge of prior rehearsals can inform the clinician’s management of the current suicide rehearsal.
Suicide rehearsals often are conducted covertly. On inpatient psychiatric units, the rehearsal usually is discovered by staff members or reported by other patients. In outpatient settings, the patient or a significant other may report a rehearsal.
The suicide method displayed in a rehearsal may change. A patient who is rehearsing a hanging may attempt suicide by overdose or a firearm. In a systematic review of prior suicide attempts (N = 1,397), Isometsä et al3 found that 82% of patients used 2 or more different methods in suicide attempts, including the completed suicide. However, in a cohort study of 48,649 individuals admitted to a hospital after an attempted suicide, Runeson et al4 found that patients who attempt suicide often used the same method in completed suicide (ie, >90% by hanging for both men and women). Therefore, when taking measures to restrict the patient’s access to lethal means, safety efforts should not be limited to the method used in the suicide rehearsal. Patients can always substitute methods.
Making overall preparations for suicide—for example, making a will, giving away valuable possessions, or putting financial affairs in order—could be confused with a suicide rehearsal, which displays the lethal method to be used in a suicide attempt, often after preparations are made. Suicide rehearsals tend to occur much closer in time to the suicide attempt than preparations for suicide. Similarly, a patient’s plan to hoard drugs for a suicide attempt is not the same as ingesting a sub-lethal dose of a drug to test his or her resolve to die.
By definition, impulsive suicide attempts are not rehearsed. However, an individual’s suicide rehearsal can impulsively segue into a suicide attempt. In a case control study (N = 153) Simon et al5 found that 24% of patients spent <5 minutes between the decision to attempt suicide and a near-lethal attempt. Similarly, in the National Comorbidity Survey, Kessler et al6 found that 26% of individuals with lifetime suicide ideation transitioned from suicide ideation to an unplanned suicide attempt. In my experience, a suicide rehearsal before a suicide completion is presumptive evidence against an impulsive suicide.
Patients contemplating suicide may visit Web sites with instructions on “how to suicide,” providing “virtual” opportunities to rehearse suicide.7 Patients who are at risk for suicide should be asked if they have searched the Internet for suicide methodology.
What we can learn from rehearsals
Although the following case examples are fictional, they illustrate suicide rehearsals encountered in my clinical and forensic practice.
CASE 1: Looking for a location
Ms. B, a 28-year-old divorced mother of 2, is observed tarrying at the high point of a bridge on successive days. When police arrive and question her, she becomes agitated and distraught. Ms. B admits to “scoping out” the bridge and is taken to a hospital emergency room (ER). In the ER, Ms. B discloses, “I was looking for a good spot to jump.” She tells the triage nurse that she is very depressed but, “I couldn’t do it to my children.” Ms. B is placed in an unlocked room while she waits to be assessed by a psychiatrist. She leaves the ER, runs to a nearby parking garage, and jumps from the top level to her death.
Comment: A patient’s denial of suicide intent following a suicide rehearsal cannot be relied upon. Ms. B’s rehearsal revealed a plan with high-risk suicide intent and a lethal suicide method. Systematic suicide assessment that informs immediate clinical intervention is required.
CASE 2: Changing lethal means
Mr. N, a 43-year-old chief executive officer of a large company, is observed by an assistant loading and unloading a revolver at his desk. Alarmed, the assistant calls the company physician. Mr. N refuses psychiatric treatment, saying, “I’ll be all right; this is just a passing thing.” His wife tells the physician that her husband has a history of bipolar disorder but no prior suicide attempts. Guns and ammunition are removed from the home. One week later, Mr. N is found hanging in his garage. A loaded pistol is discovered in the glove compartment of his car.
Comment: There is no certainty that a subsequent suicide attempt will replicate the rehearsed method. A psychological autopsy was conducted, but no explanation was found for why Mr. N chose hanging after having rehearsed suicide with a loaded handgun. His wife thought that her husband, a very tidy person, did not want to leave a mess.
CASE 3: Grieving and depressed
Mr. O, age 67, is depressed after recently losing his wife. He considers a number of suicide methods. Mr. O decides to use a plastic bag to suffocate himself because he believes that this method will allow him to change his mind. Mr. O practices tying the bag tight around his neck. During this rehearsal, he realizes that he does not want to die. Instead, he pursues grief counseling.
Comment: For some patients, the act of rehearsing suicide can help them resolve ambivalent feelings about wanting to die in favor of wanting to live.
CASE 4: Suicide method and the Internet
Ms. S, a 22-year-old college student, is undergoing outpatient treatment for depression. She is accumulating prescription drugs to take as an overdose. Ms. S also searches the Internet for information about other suicide methods. Because she wants a “sure” method of suicide, she persuades an acquaintance to purchase a handgun. In private, Ms. S places the unloaded gun to her head and plays “Russian roulette,” pulling the trigger several times. Her mother discovers the gun and confronts her daughter. Ms. S is hospitalized on a closed psychiatric unit and tells a staff member, “I was practicing suicide with the gun.” Before Ms. S is discharged from the hospital, her parents are advised to watch for suicidal behaviors, especially the recurrence of rehearsals that indicate an acute, high suicide risk. Ms. S’s Internet use is restricted and monitored.
Comment: Suicide rehearsal with a gun reinforces the belief that a firearm death is quick and easy.8 Reaching for a loaded gun takes less time than most other methods of suicide. Patients who rehearse suicide with a gun should be prevented from having access to any firearms, weapons, or other highly lethal means of suicide.
Recognition and intervention
A guarded psychiatric inpatient who is intent on attempting suicide is unmasked when the discovery of a suicidal rehearsal reveals a suicide plan. This creates an opportunity for clinicians to intervene. The patient may attempt to cover up suicidal intent by stating, “I was just playing around” or “I just wanted to get attention.” Recognizing the emergency posed by a suicide rehearsal informs treatment. Safety measures—including 1-to-1 supervision—may be necessary during a period of acute, high suicide risk. The patient’s diagnosis, severity of illness, and treatment require reevaluation.
An outpatient who performs a suicide rehearsal should be considered at acute, high risk for suicide, and immediate psychiatric hospitalization may be necessary. Whether as an inpatient or outpatient, the patient’s suicide intent and plan require careful exploration. The information gained will guide treatment and management decisions. Continuing systematic suicide risk assessment is essential.
- American Association of Suicidology. www.suicidology.org.
- Joiner T. Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2007.
- American Psychiatric Association. Practice guideline for the assessment and treatment of patients with suicidal behaviors. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. 2003.
- Simon RI. Preventing patient suicide: clinical assessment and management. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 2011.
Dr. Simon reports no financial relationship with any company whose products are mentioned in this article or with manufacturers of competing products.
1. Joiner TE, Jr. The trajectory of suicidal behavior over time. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2002;32(1):33-41.
2. Simon RI. Imminent suicide: the illusion of short-term prediction. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2006;36(3):296-301.
3. Isometsä ET, Lönnqvist JK. Suicide attempts preceding completed suicide. Br J Psychiatry. 1998;173:531-535.
4. Runeson B, Tidemalm D, Dahlin M, et al. Method of attempted suicide as a predictor of subsequent successful suicide: national long-term cohort study. BMJ. 2010;341:c3222. doi:10.1136/bmj.63222.
5. Simon TR, Swann AC, Powell KE, et al. Characteristics of impulsive suicide attempts and attempters. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2001;32(suppl):49-59.
6. Kessler RC, Borges G, Walters EE. Prevalence of and risk factors for lifetime suicide attempts in the National Comorbidity Study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56(7):617-626.
7. Recupero PR. Suicide and the Internet. In: Simon RI Hales RE, eds. The American Psychiatric Publishing textbook of suicide assessment and management. 2nd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 2012:515–538.
8. Simon RI. Gun safety management with patients at risk for suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2007;37(5):518-526.