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Viewpoints: Mental health clinicians need more suicide prevention training

On Sept. 7, 2012, my courageous wife brought a 10-week search to a horrific end by finding our daughter’s remains along the American River. The loss of our precious girl, Linnea Lomax, to suicide is now driving us to call for a change that will save lives. Our request is shockingly simple: We want mental health professionals to have suicide prevention training. Astonishingly, this is not required of California clinicians.

Assembly Bill 2198 by Assemblyman Marc Levine would change that. Starting on Jan. 1, 2016, those studying to be psychologists, marriage and family therapists or licensed clinical social workers will be required to receive 15 hours of training on suicide risk assessment and treatment. Current clinicians must get six hours of continuing education before they are relicensed. Is that asking too much?

My family experienced the gravity of this neglect in training when Linnea, a UC Davis freshman, became mentally ill. During spring final exams in 2012, her mother and I paid Linnea a surprise visit at her dorm and, to our amazement, caught her in the midst of a suicide attempt.

Over the next 16 days, we struggled to keep our suddenly delusional daughter alive. We took her to multiple licensed clinicians, a psychiatric hospital and then to her prescribed outpatient program. On her first day at the outpatient facility, she left and was never seen alive again. Some of Linnea’s clinicians were ready and some were unprepared for the most critically important aspect of their profession – keeping their patient alive.

About 3,500 people die by suicide every year in California – more than in traffic fatalities and nearly double the number of homicides. Statistics like these make the inconsistent training standards of our professionals intolerable to anyone who has patient survival as their priority.

So, how inconsistent is the current training? The American Association of Suicidology says, “Approximately half of psychological trainees had received didactic training on suicide during their graduate education, and the training provided was often very limited.” According to other studies, even fewer licensed clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists get this training. Some universities provide adequate training; some of them do not.

California lawmakers need to be encouraged to approve this legislation so lives can be saved. High-priced, powerful lobbyists representing clinician associations are working to defeat AB 2198, which was approved by the Assembly in May. Senators should stand firm and insist that our professionals be required to have basic training in suicide prevention. This bill is a vital, common-sense response to understanding that the experts who might be able to save many lives are not always prepared to do so.

Hopefully, the Legislature will pass this bill and Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it with the knowledge that unlike most measures, AB 2198 will make the difference between life and death for some patients. In this case, time is not money, it’s lives. We cannot afford to wait for these professions to gradually admit to insufficient training and make adjustments. And based on the resistance their lobbyists are giving, there is no indication that significant improvement in training will ever happen without legislation.

In the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, the surgeon general recognized this life-threatening issue and pointed to the state of Washington’s recent law after which AB 2198 is modeled. Kentucky has already followed Washington’s example, and other states, like Pennsylvania, are in the process.

Though special interest groups can be powerful and persuasive, it should be clear to our politicians that AB 2198 is a reasonable, critically important and tardy response to a serious health crisis facing our state. We must insist our experts are qualified to lead our loved ones to safety.