We often think of therapists as the main source of support for someone who’s thinking of ending their life. But they’re not the only ones who can help.
Over half of people see a primary care provider in the month before trying to take their own lives.
While most suicide intervention efforts have been focused on mental health and emergency room (ER) settings, professionals throughout all medical fields play a critical role in suicide prevention.
The All Patients Safe program teaches every type of healthcare worker — including physicians, nurses, surgeons, dentists, and naturopaths — how to recognize signs of suicide, empathize with someone in crisis, and advise patients on keeping their homes safe through proper storage of guns and prescription drugs.
In an effort to reduce the stigma associated with the mental health disorder, the program also teaches them the proper language to use when talking about suicide.
During the training, healthcare professionals also learn about groups who are more vulnerable to suicide, including veterans, youth, and pregnant and postpartum women.
The program also helps healthcare workers develop strategies to integrate suicide prevention protocols into their practices.
The interactive online course takes six hours to complete and includes videos, knowledge quizzes, and graphics.
“Primary care is the frontline of suicide prevention in this country,” said Jennifer Stuber, faculty and policy director at Forefront Suicide Prevention and associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work. “We’ve been working to help improve the competency of our entire healthcare workforce to identify risks for suicide.”
Washington requires suicide prevention training
Nearly 45,000 people in the United States died by suicide in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Washington, 1,141 people took their own lives that year, pushing the state higher than the national average for rates of death by suicide.
Advocates have been working with the Washington state legislature since 2012 to address this preventable public health issue, Stuber told Healthline.
They finally achieved success last summer, when Washington became the first state in the country to mandate suicide assessment, treatment, and management training for all healthcare providers.
There are now more than 60 state-approved courses, ranging from three to six hours, available to all healthcare professionals in Washington.
“Our state legislature has come to see suicide as one of the public health crises of the day. The new training requirement is spurring bigger conversations about barriers to doing this work,” said Stuber.
A program developed by doctors for doctors
According to the University of Washington, around 400 providers have completed the All Patients Safe training since it launched last November. More than 1,200 others have also signed up for the program.
While it generally costs $98, physicians affiliated with the University of Washington Physicians or Children’s University Medical Group can take it for free.
Stuber said that it’s received a positive response from participants.
“It used to be that suicide prevention training was developed by suicide experts, and they’d be speaking to empty rooms,” Stuber told Healthline.
“But now we’ve got many new trainings developed for specific audiences,” she said. “All Patients Safe was developed by doctors for doctors, and they really appreciate the quality of the program and how easy it is to access.”
Addressing the suicide prevention training gap
Most states don’t require suicide prevention training for medical professionals.
A 2016 report from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said that only five other states (Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Utah) mandate similar training, but only for social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, drug addiction counselors, and professionals in related fields.
The report also states that Illinois, Louisiana, and Montana officially “encourage” similar trainings.
Stuber hopes Washington’s comprehensive requirement to educate all healthcare workers (not just those in social work or mental health fields) will inspire other states to pass similar mandates.
“It’s not just mental health professionals who have a role in suicide prevention, it’s all professionals. We hope people will start to see that there’s an enormous gap in the quality of care for people at risk of suicide,” she said.
All Patients Safe and other trainings help healthcare providers become lifesavers for people contemplating taking their lives.
However, the online program is just the start of how Stuber hopes to improve suicide prevention strategies wherever people seek care.
She said they’re now working on in-person training to supplement the online course and help medical professionals feel confident in intervening with patients who show signs of suicide. The pilot program is set to launch in the next few months.
“All Patients Safe covers the basics, but we want to help clinicians practice those skills to help bridge the gap between online learning and what happens in real life. Some people have difficulty directly asking about suicide, and the reality is that there’s no replacement for actually practicing it,” she said.
The team behind All Patients Safe will be measuring the success for the program on an ongoing basis. They want to see if the training helps make positive changes in the documentation of signs of suicide in patient medical records; in how medical practitioners behave around patients; and in the safety plans at healthcare facilities.
But true success, Stuber said, is rooted in saving lives.
“Ultimately, does it make a difference in terms of reducing suicide?” That’s the long-term vision,” she said.