Background: Many patients attempting or committing suicide consult their general practitioner (GP) in the preceding period, indicating that GPs might play an important role in prevention. The aim of the present study was to analyse the epidemiology of suicidal behaviour in Dutch General Practice in order to find possible clues for prevention. Method: Description of trends in suicide and suicide attempts occurring from 1983-2003 in the Dutch General Practice Sentinel Network, representing 1% of the Dutch population. The data were analysed with regard to: 1) suicidal behaviour trends and their association with household situation; 2) presence of depression, treatment of depression and referral rate by GPs; 3) contact with GP before suicide or suicide attempt and discussion of suicidal ideation. Results: Between 1983 and 2003 the annual number of suicide and suicide attempts decreased by 50%. Sixty percent of the patients who committed or attempted suicide were diagnosed as depressed, of whom 91% were treated by their GP with an antidepressant. Living alone was a risk factor for suicide (odds ratio 1.99; 95% CI 1.50 to 2.64), whereas living in a household of 3 or more persons was a relative risk for a suicide attempt (odds ratio 1.81; 95% CI 1.34 to 2.46). Referral to a psychiatrist or other mental health professionals occurred in 65% of the cases. GPs recalled having discussed suicidal ideation in only 7% of the cases, and in retrospect estimated that they had foreseen suicide or suicide attempts in 31% and 22% of the cases, respectively, if there had been contact in the preceding month. Conclusion: With regard to the prescription of antidepressants and referral of suicidal patients to a psychiatrist, Dutch GPs fulfil their role as gatekeeper satisfactorily. However, since few patients discuss their suicidal ideation with their GP, there is room for improvement. GPs should take the lead to make this subject debatable. It may improve early recognition of depressed patients at risk and accelerate their referral to mental health professionals.