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Herzing University

Jessica Dickenson

Suicide Prevention in Social Work

Social workers have the unique chance to make a life-changing difference to people by making them feel wanted, appreciated, heard, and seen.

If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, please call or text 988 to contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.

Suicide doesn’t just end a life, it irrevocably changes the lives of those left behind. It’s a decision you can’t take back and it occurs far too often. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and accounted for nearly 46,000 deaths in 2020. That number is 30% higher than in 2000, meaning suicide prevention needs more support and even more compassionate workers. It is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-14 and 25-34 and it is especially prevalent among veterans, people who live in rural areas, sexual and gender minorities, and tribal populations.

As a social worker, you can play a critical role in preventing suicide. Because social workers work in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, criminal justice settings, mental health agencies, residential facilities, or nursing homes, you are specially positioned to help deliver suicide prevention programs and supply information to get those who are contemplating suicide the help they and their loved ones need.

Continue to Educate Yourself

According to Social Work Today, all social workers should understand and be able to apply the clinical components of the Zero Suicide model and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention's framework for the implementation of evidence-based practices. These are great resources for social workers to stay on top of current, new, and emerging risk assessment safety plans.

Many states require continuing education on suicide prevention and response as a part of your continuing education (CE) for initial licensure or renewal. There are also workshops available to you to help with assessing suicide risk or counseling on access to lethal means. There is also training available to become a suicide bereavement trained clinician.

Identify At-Risk Individuals

The first step in preventing suicide is understanding and identifying suicide risk factors to develop effective prevention approaches. In addition to common demographic factors, individuals who have a diagnosis of major depression, bipolar depression, substance use disorder, or another serious mental illness could be at risk. If you are aware of individuals who are going through a traumatic situation, substance abuse or have a family history of suicide you should be mindful of whether they may need someone to talk to.

It is also important to look out for subtle signs that an individual is planning to commit suicide.

  • Have they been giving away meaningful possessions?
  • Have they been alienating themselves from others?
  • You should also assess the opportunities that these at-risk individuals have. Do they have access to a firearm or potentially lethal medications?

Depending on the other above factors, you may act in their best interest by either removing them from their location and/or getting them the help, they need.

Offer Therapies and Programs

While social workers are not therapists, they still have a responsibility and the capability to provide much-needed support. Social workers can help intervene by talking to clients about thoughts of suicide, assessing the client’s safety, and accessing resources in the community. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) can provide counseling and specific types of evidence-based clinical interventions to reduce thoughts of self-harm and address trauma. Not only should you work with people to address problems and work through difficult experiences but you could also deliver universal, targeted, and individual prevention programs. The Suicide Resource Prevention Center (SRPC) offers a series of resources for social workers of a variety of ages and demographics to help you find the best methods to help you.

You could also expand your professional career by taking on a direct role in suicide prevention. Clinical social workers can diagnose and treat behavioral, emotional and mental issues or disorders. Clinical social workers may need to complete additional training and meet specific licensure requirements to work in some positions.

Talk About It!

If you are concerned about your client, say something! Social workers need to use the best assessment tools for assessing suicide risk. It is a good idea to receive regular training on how to talk to clients about suicidal thoughts. It is a good idea to conduct your own routine screening for suicidal thoughts in addition to any therapies that an individual may conduct.

Suicide is a difficult topic to discuss, but it is important to address this important topic before it is too late. Some ways you can foster a positive environment to discuss suicide include:

  • Create an accepting, safe, non-judgmental space for clients to disclose suicidal thoughts
  • Maintain a transparent, neutral stance throughout the interview
  • Consider the number and timing of questions
  • Convey to the client that there are alternatives to suicide
  • Personalize treatment and/or treatment plan

Suicide is not usually about wanting to die. Many people who have suicidal thoughts wish to escape their situation and see suicide as the only solution to the problems they are facing. These people are in a crisis, and social workers are trained to work with crises.

Call for Help

If you know anyone who is contemplating suicide or is looking to help someone in need, you can direct them to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources and best practices for professionals in the United States.

You can dial or text 988 to contact a member of the hotline. This new, shorter phone number is now active across the United States and will make it easier for people to quickly and effectively access mental health crisis services. The previous 1-800-273-TALK (8255) number will also continue to function indefinitely.

Although suicidal thoughts can make people feel alone, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Social workers have the unique chance to make a life-changing difference to people by making them feel wanted, appreciated, heard, and seen. Just like any healthcare professional, you can save lives through your actions.

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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2023 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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