Lawmakers move to require suicide prevention training for counselors, social workers

March 13, 2017 | Will Schmitt

Sen. Jeanie Riddle couldn’t believe what Jane Smith was telling her about suicide training in Missouri.

Smith, a mental health counselor and life crisis director with St. Louis-based Provident, oversees a hotline people can call if they’re thinking about committing suicide or if they see risk signs in others. She and other mental health care advocates are pushing for psychologists, behavior analysts, marriage counselors and social workers to be required to take two hours of suicide prevention training to be licensed, with periodic follow-up as part of mandatory continuing education.

Currently, this isn’t required, and Riddle, R-Mokane, was baffled.

“I just find it really impossible to believe that these — it’s shocking — that these professions do not include suicide (prevention training),” she said. “How can that be?”

Legislation discussed Monday by the Senate Professional Registration Committee, which Riddle chairs, could change that. The bill sponsored by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, would make suicide prevention training mandatory for certain health care professionals.

Smith was at a loss to explain the current lack of training. She recounted that her own instruction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis included a 15-minute class that simply advised her to call police and try to prevent people from harming themselves.

Mental health care therapists can receive more in-depth training currently, but it’s not required. Schupp’s bill also would allow licensed physicians to count two hours of suicide prevention training toward their regular continuing education requirements.

Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in Missouri in 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Suicide rates have been higher than average and climbing for the past five years, and the issue is more pronounced among younger people.

An UMSL report from 2015 found that suicides outnumbered motor vehicle accident and homicide deaths, that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Missourians aged 15 to 24 and that most suicides were completed with firearms.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, frequently questioned the legislation, but he clarified several times that he believed the bill served a “noble cause” and that his inquiries were based in legislative caution and not in opposition to more suicide prevention training.

Eigel raised two main points of concern, by wondering whether two hours was sufficient and by asking whether this kind of training had shown any benefits.

Smith said there is not yet data showing that state laws requiring training reduce suicide rates. But training that teaches people to plan out how they’ll handle someone who is suicidal has been shown to be effective. She said two hours is enough to lay foundations and learn to recognize signs of suicidal tendencies and to create safety plans to mitigate the risks.

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Linda Ferhmann, who leads the Eastern Missouri chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Fehrmann told the committee that she supported the additional requirements in part because of the death of her son, who was 23.

“He displayed many warning signs that were missed by everyone around him,” she said, adding that people may be totally focused on dying yet still want to live. “…While I really agree with Sen. Eigel that two hours is not enough, it’s at least a start.”

Legislative researchers estimate the bill will not increase costs for the state, because some third-party organizations already provide the training called for in the bill, Schupp said. Nobody testified in opposition, and the committee voted 6-0 to approve the bill.

Numbers to call 

If you’re concerned that you or someone you know might try to hurt or kill themselves, there are phone numbers you can call in addition to dialing 911 for emergencies.

Burrell Behavioral Health: 417-761-5555

Missouri Crisis Line: 1-573-445-5035

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

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