March 31, 2014
In 2012, Washington State lawmakers passed a law requiring all licensed mental health workers—including social workers, family therapists, and psychologists—to receive periodic training in identifying and treating clients at risk for suicide. Kentucky followed suit with its own law in 2013, and similar legislation is currently under consideration in other states.
As these laws have raised the profile of suicide as preventable, they have also created a huge demand for courses that help clinicians better understand and treat patients at risk.
EDC’s Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) is answering the call with a new version of their popular training course Assessing and Managing Suicide Risk (AMSR), which will be released in April. EDC’s Laurie Davidson hopes that AMSR will help mental health providers nationwide save lives.
“So many clinicians need to be trained, and the information in AMSR provides the minimum knowledge and skills they will need to assess and manage suicidal clients,” says Davidson. She points to 750,000 licensed behavioral health professionals in the United States, many of whom have little or no formal training in this area.
Originally released in 2006, AMSR was developed by SPRC and the American Association of Suicidology. Since then, it has been used to train more than 25,000 people nationwide. Davidson says that eight trainings of trainers are planned for this year, which will enable upwards of 200 people to run the new course.
In leading the team that revised AMSR, Davidson wanted to highlight specific clinical techniques that clinicians could bring back to their practices. She credits Anthony Pisani, a professor at the University of Rochester and lead writer of the course, with making the content easier to digest, more user friendly, and ultimately more engaging.
The new version can also be more easily adapted to an individual trainer’s needs. This is an important consideration because Davidson is increasingly trying to reach mental health professionals who work in diverse settings, from substance abuse treatment to hospital inpatient programs.
The course is also more focused on discrete skills for practitioners. Each section begins with discussion of a dilemma that clinicians might face when treating a patient who may be at risk for suicide. And it also emphasizes a recovery model, which teaches clinicians how to help patients make a safety plan, a list of actions to take if suicidal thoughts re-surface.
“Historically, clinicians have tried to address the underlying causes of suicide—such as anxiety and stress—but not addressed the fact that, right then, their client may be thinking about killing himself,” says Davidson. “Clinicians have to address this with safety planning and the regular reassessment of risk factors.”
This winter, the course was piloted in Washington State where it was used to train over 250 social workers, licensed mental health counselors, and masters-level social work students.
Sue Eastgard, who led the trainings, says that the reaction to the new AMSR course has been “wonderful.”
“This training goes hand in glove with the new training requirements in the state,” says Eastgard, who is director of training for Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, an organization based at the University of Washington School of Social Work. “Once the legislation passed, we reached out to SPRC and asked, ‘How can we partner on this to make sure people get trained?’ The legislation called for six hours of training; AMSR is six and a half. It’s very practical.”
The course is also making its way into the pre-service education of social workers. At the University of Washington School of Social Work, where Eastgard teaches, students can sign up to take AMSR before graduating and going into the workforce. This year, she estimates that about 200 newly minted social workers will have gone through the program.
It’s a small but important step in helping Washington’s mental health workforce get the suicide assessment, management, and treatment skills they need. Eastgard estimates that 26,000 social workers and behavioral health professionals are impacted by the state’s new legislation.
“This is an important mandate,” she says. “We are thrilled to have a quality course like AMSR to help prepare professionals to recognize and respond to suicidal behavior.”