Helping Mental Health Professionals Get Suicide-Prevention Training

Apr 9, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer Stuber

By Jennifer Stuber, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. Stuber is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program (2004-2006). Her research interests include health policy, interventions to refute stigmatization and tobacco-related health disparities.

Health policy happens to be my area of professional expertise. But it has gotten very personal for me over the last 18 months.

It was about that long ago that my husband, Matt Adler, started having symptoms of depression and anxiety. An accomplished lawyer and a beloved father and husband, he found the illness and the stigma that came with it overpowering. We got him counseling and medication from a psychiatrist and a psychologist, but in the end, he took his own life.

I won’t try to describe the canyon-sized sense of loss my kids and I feel, or for that matter, any of the other emotions we’ve experienced since that horrible day last February. But I’ve worked hard to try to generate something positive from Matt’s ordeal and from ours.

A few months before he died, Matt asked me if I had any ideas about ways to put his legal skills to work on behalf of people with mental illness. He said he’d like to devote some pro bono time to the subject. After his death, I knew I wanted to honor that request as best I could. So I began discussing the subject with my fellow faculty at the University of Washington, and with suicide-prevention experts in the community.

At first, I focused on raising money for the cause, and toward that end, I started the Matt Adler Fund. But I was also struck by a recurrent theme in my conversations with the experts and as I raised my own awareness: As a state and a nation, we’re doing an insufficient job on suicide prevention. For example, in my home state of Washington, suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death, accounting for more deaths than motor-vehicle crashes, homicide and HIV/AIDS combined. Yet, there is very limited state funding for efforts to address this important public health problem. Nationwide, in 2009, we lost more than 36,000 people to suicide, making it the fourth-leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 65.

file Washington Governor Christine Gregoire prepares to sign the Matt Adler Suicide Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012 under the watchful eye of Adler and Jennifer Stuber's two children, Jake and Zoe.

It’s a huge problem. But because of the stigma associated with suicide and fears that talking about it will lead other people to complete suicide, we do not give sufficient attention to this public health problem, compromising public awareness and proactive policy responses. Not long after I came to that understanding, I discovered something else disturbing. The psychiatrist and psychologist who were treating my husband were concerned about the risk he posed to himself but did not take action to protect him. They told him he needed to be hospitalized, but neither pursued the matter beyond making the suggestion to him— and him only. The suicide prevention experts I met with were not surprised by this inappropriate response—as training in suicide prevention is not required for any health professional, not even mental health professionals. Perhaps more aggressive intervention would have saved his life and given us time to help him overcome his illness. We’ll never know.

But in his memory, I’m committed to helping others with suicidal “ideation,” as it’s called—people who are thinking about taking their lives—get the help they need. I’ve been working the last several months with a state legislator who, because of her background in health issues, recognized the problem immediately and crafted a bill that would require mental health professionals in the state to complete six hours of training in suicide assessment, treatment and management every six years, as part of their existing continuing education requirement.

Together we gathered the various professional groups in the state together around a table and brought them to agreement in support of the bill. From there, she moved the bill through committee, through a vote on the floor of the state House, and then through the Senate. In late March, Governor Christine Gregoire signed it into law.

I’m hopeful that other states will take notice and develop similar measures to make sure health professionals get the training they need to help keep suicidal patients safe. Nothing will bring my husband back to us. But I’m confident this bill, the Matt Adler Suicide Assessment, Treatment & Management Act of 2012, will help save lives. That would be a fitting memorial to my husband’s wish to help others overcome the illness that claimed his life.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.