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Why are Therapists so Rarely Trained in Suicide?

Over the years, many suicide loss survivors have contacted the Alliance of Hope, searching for a counselor who understands the unique nature of their grief.  Some have told us that a counselor who helped them previously doesn’t know how to help now. This is not surprising because few graduate schools include suicide aftercare (or postvention) in their mental health curriculums and there is little continuing education in this area.

This lack of attention to the needs of suicide loss survivors has always occurred to me as a profound void in the arena of mental health support because the complex and traumatic nature of suicide catapults family and friends onto a challenging grief journey. In the initial aftermath, those closest are almost 10x more likely to have suicidal thoughts than the general public. They are also more likely to leave their jobs or drop out of school.

Last week, USA Today published an article that highlighted another crucial gap in support. Prevention campaigns urge suicidal people to seek treatment – yet most mental health practitioners have no formal training in how to work effectively with suicidal people.

Journalist Alia Dastagir wrote: “Suicide-specific training is not commonly offered as part of college curriculums, optional post-graduate training opportunities are limited, costly and time-consuming, and experts say some therapists may not be aware they even need the education.”

Dastagir points out that only nine states in the U.S. mandate training in suicide assessment, treatment, and management. Prominent organizations that accredit graduate programs in psychology and social work do not require specific competencies in suicide prevention.

Lacking training and experience in this area, many therapists feel lost. Some hesitate to take on suicidal clients, fearing they might say or do the wrong thing, that a client might attempt, that they might be blamed, or that they might be sued. Making things more challenging is the fact that there are few options available to therapists treating someone who is actively suicidal, other than sending them to an ER, or involuntary hospitalization – both of which are proving to have questionable outcomes.

Those of us who have already lost loved ones to suicide are keenly aware of the complexity and challenges associated with preventing suicide. We know that “noticing signs,” “calling an 800 number” or “getting a loved one into treatment” does not always work. Too many loss survivors have discovered that being in treatment or on medication, does not ensure suicide will be prevented. 

In her article, Dastagir cites experts who suggest that preventing suicide “requires a holistic approach that includes communities, families, educators and religious leaders working together. But society, they say, has placed the burden of caring for suicidal people on a mental health workforce woefully underprepared to help them.”

It is disconcerting to realize that those we rely on to help us and our loved ones may themselves feel lost, with little training, or few tools and resources to help. It is my hope, that in the coming decade there will be better training for mental health professionals, and greater emphasis on the importance of holistic support, so that we can help those who need it most.

Click here to read the full story: We tell suicidal people to go to therapy. So why are therapists rarely trained in suicide?