Universal screening for suicidal ideation in primary care and mental health settings has become a key prevention tool in many healthcare systems, including the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA). In response to the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare providers faced a number of challenges, including how to quickly adapt screening practices. The objective of this analyses was to learn staff perspectives on how the pandemic impacted suicide risk screening in primary care and mental health settings. Forty semi-structured interviews were conducted with primary care and mental health staff between April-September 2020 across 12 VHA facilities. A multi-disciplinary team employed a qualitative thematic analysis using a hybrid inductive/deductive approach. Staff reported multiple concerns for patients during the crisis, especially regarding vulnerable populations at risk for social isolation. Lack of clear protocols at some sites on how to serve patients screening positive for suicidal ideation created confusion for staff and led some sites to temporarily stop screening. Sites had varying degrees of adaptability to virtual based care, with the biggest challenge being completion of warm hand-offs to mental health specialists. Unanticipated opportunities that emerged during this time included increased ability of patients and staff to conduct virtual care, which is expected to continue benefit post-pandemic.
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