October 10, 2018

With suicide rates rising, many mental health care providers unprepared, research suggests

Reese depression A Purdue study found that most states don’t have requirements for mental health professionals to have suicide-related training. (Stock image) Download image

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen a quarter since 1999, killing nearly 45,000 Americans each year. About 90 percent of those who attempt or die from suicide had a diagnosable mental disorder, yet most states don’t require suicide-related training for mental health care providers.

A new case study from Colorado, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, found that many providers don’t think they’re fully prepared to deal with suicide prevention and would support requirements for training. The findings were published in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

 “Mental health care providers are the frontline in suicide response; if a teacher or friend thinks someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, they’re going to send them to a mental health care provider,” said Laura Schwab Reese, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University who led the study. “Whether there’s a mandate for on-going training or graduate education is requiring some classwork in suicide risk-assessment and management, we want mental health care providers to be ready.”

Before focusing on Colorado, the researchers considered every state’s requirements for suicide-related training for therapists, social workers and psychologists, which make up the vast majority of the mental health workforce. At the time of the study, only Washington, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Nevada and Utah required some form of suicide-related training for their mental health care providers.

Laura Schwab Reese Laura Schwab Reese
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In a survey of more than 2,000 providers in Colorado, only 40 percent reported participating in suicide prevention training at least twice in the past five years, while 25 percent had no such training. Half of those surveyed had had a client attempt suicide, and more than one-third had a client who died by suicide, illustrating the necessity of suicide-related training for mental health professionals today.

“Much of Colorado is designated as having a mental health provider shortage,” Schwab Reese said. “If many of the providers there can’t address suicide, it’s really difficult to find someone else.”

More than 80 percent of survey responders supported requiring mental health practitioners to have some form of suicide-related education after graduate school. However, many said finding adequate training can be difficult, as much of the existing education on suicide is geared toward a lay audience.

Many respondents said that post-graduate training would be the best way to prepare providers, as graduate coursework would need substantial changes to address the education gap and it wouldn’t reach providers already practicing.

“We need to take a look at how mental health care providers in each state are trained,” Schwab Reese said. “At the time we did the research, Indiana also didn’t require suicide-related training, which means there isn’t a systematic requirement for providers in Indiana to be trained in suicide prevention or response.”

The work aligns with Purdue's Giant Leaps celebration, acknowledging the university’s global advancements made in health, longevity and quality of life as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. This is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues. 

Writer: Kayla Zacharias, 765-494-9318, kzachar@purdue.edu 

Source: Laura Schwab Reese, 765+496-6723, lschwabr@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: For a copy of the paper, please contact Kayla Zacharias, Purdue News Service, kzachar@purdue.edu


Should suicide prevention training be required for mental health practitioners? A Colorado, United States case study

Laura M. Schwab-Reese, Vladka Kovar, Sarah Brummett, Carol Runyan

Suicide is a critical public health problem, resulting in more than 40,000 deaths a year in the United States (U.S.) and 800,000 globally. Provision of mental health services is a key component of a comprehensive population-based approach to prevention. State licensing boards in some U.S. states require mental health practitioners to be trained in suicide risk assessment and management, but such requirements are not uniform. Our case study examined mental health practitioner preparedness to engage in suicide prevention and intervention in Colorado, a state with a high suicide rate, using a survey designed to understand training experiences and perceptions of the acceptability of mandated training. Our findings support efforts to require mental health practitioners be trained to prevent suicide.

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