You Can't Recover from Suicide: Perspectives on Suicide Education in MSW Programs

By Ruth, Betty J.; Gianino, Mark et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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You Can't Recover from Suicide: Perspectives on Suicide Education in MSW Programs


Ruth, Betty J., Gianino, Mark, Muroff, Jordana, McLaughlin, Donna, Feldman, Barry N., Journal of Social Work Education


SUICIDE IS A SIGNIFICANT worldwide public health problem that causes widespread loss, trauma, and suffering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24; in 2009, there were 36,909 suicide deaths (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2012). The 2009 overall rate of suicide was 12/100,000 population, the highest it has been since 1995 (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2012). In addition to completed suicides, it is estimated that close to one million U.S. residents make attempts each year and that approximately 650,000 people seek treatment in emergency rooms after suicide attempts (Maris, Berman, & Silverman, 2000; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). A far-reaching problem that affects millions of Americans each year, suicide has not received the attention focused on other public health problems of a similar magnitude (Knox, Conwell, & Caine, 2004; Nock, Borges, Bromet, Cha, Kessler, & Lee, 2008).

Surgeon General David Satcher of the U.S. Public Health Service issued a major Call to Action to Prevent Suicide; shortly thereafter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed and launched a national public health strategy for suicide prevention (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999). The strategy's key recommendations focused on broadening public awareness of suicide, strengthening clinical intervention and population-based prevention approaches used by professionals, and advancing the science of suicide prevention (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Although the science of suicide prevention and intervention is still evolving, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention has identified the importance of more professional training in current best practices for all mental health professionals, including social workers (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

Social Work and Suicide Education

With more than a half million practicing social workers in the United States, workforce studies show an increase in social work practice in health and mental health and indicate that the majority of social workers now work in health or mental health care settings (Ruth et al., 2008; Whitaker, Weismiller, Clark, & Wilson, 2006). Over the past 20 years, social work has grown in prominence as a mental health profession, and social workers are now the nation's largest providers of mental health treatment services, providing approximately 70.0% of mental health services (Joe & Niedermeier, 2008; Manderscheid et al., 2004). Social workers appear to encounter suicidal clients regularly; according to a national survey of NASW members, 93% of randomly sampled social workers responded that they had worked with suicidal clients at some point, and 87.1% had worked with a suicidal client in the past year (Feldman & Freedenthal, 2006). In another national survey, some 55% of a randomly drawn NASW sample of mental health social workers had experienced a client suicide attempt during their careers, and another 31% had experienced a completed client suicide (Sanders, Jacobson, & Ting, 2008). Although no systematic or large-scale studies of social work students exist, more than half of students (58.2%) surveyed at a large urban school of social work described the prevalence of suicide and suicidal behavior as "extensive" among clients in their agencies (Ruth, Sasportas, Beville, & Muroff, 2008).

Despite the widespread exposure of social workers to the issue of suicide, scholarly professional literature on suicide in social work journals and by social workers is sparse; one systematic review of 29 of the profession's major journals from 1980 to 2006 revealed that less than 1% of total articles related generally to suicide (Joe & Neidermeier, 2006).

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