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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Dealing with suicidal patients – a challenging task: a qualitative study of young physicians' experiences

Tordis Sørensen Høifødt1* and Anne-Grethe Talseth12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Clinical Psychiatry, Division of Clinical Medicine, University of Tromsø/Department of Psychiatric Research and Development, University Hospital of Northern Norway, Åsgård, N-9291 Tromsø, Norway

2 Tromsø College, Faculty of Health Sciences, M.H. bygget, Breivika, 9293 Tromsø, Norway

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BMC Medical Education 2006, 6:44  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-6-44

Published: 23 August 2006



Suicide is a major public health problem and treating suicidal patients represents one of the most challenging and complex clinical situations for young physicians. Education of physicians is considered an important strategy in suicide prevention. Young physicians often meet suicidal patients early in their career. Limited information is available about how newly educated physicians experience treating suicidal patients. The aim of the study was to shed light on the meaning of newly educated physicians' lived experiences in treating patients at risk of committing suicide.


Thirteen newly educated physicians narrated their experiences with suicidal patients. The interview text was transcribed and interpreted using a phenomenological-hermeneutical method inspired by Ricoeur's philosophy.


Three main themes and ten themes were noted: Striving for relatedness: relating with the patient; not being able to relate with the patient; Intervening competently: having adequate professional knowledge; performing professionally; having professional values; evaluating one's own competence; and Being emotionally involved: accepting one's own vulnerability; feeling morally indignant; feeling powerless and accepting one's own fallibility. The recently educated physicians clearly described the variety of emotional and ethical dilemmas that arose in meeting suicidal patients and the professional challenge facing this clinical situation. The findings were interpreted in the perspective of communication, clinical decision-making and attention to the professional's emotional reactions.


An examination of the experiences of young physicians treating suicidal patients reveals three main themes that were a professional challenge for them: Striving for relatedness, Intervening competently and Being emotionally involved. Support for young practitioners that are treating these patients is likely important both to facilitate learning and also for their own well-being. This increased understanding can open up for the patient's suffering and affirm the patient's sense of life. The study provides additional background for educators designing training programs for physicians who will be treating suicidal patients.