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Editorial: Bill is a modest proposal to reduce suicide

It’s difficult to know if comedian Robin Williams’ death last week had any effect on Assemblyman Marc Levine’s push to require health care providers to have specific training on suicide prevention.

The bill received surprising bipartisan support in the Senate last week, where it passed with only one “no” vote.

We’d like to think that Williams’ suicide had something to do with bringing together both sides on this legislation – it would mean at least one good came out of such a sad occasion.

AB 2198 is a modest proposal: It requires psychologists, marriage and family counselors and social workers in California to take a one-time, six-hour course on suicide prevention as part of their 36-hour continuing education requirement to renew their professional licenses.

It also requires that 15 hours of the roughly 3,200 hours of course work required for these professionals to obtain a degree are dedicated to suicide prevention training. These hours are based on recommendations from the California Department of Public Health, according to Levine.

Seems reasonable to us.

Not so to the associations of social workers, counselors and psychologists. They object to the bill on behalf of their members on two main grounds.

First, that suicide prevention is intrinsic to their core training in treating mental illness. While there’s not a specific unit of study on suicide prevention required, it’s woven into their overall university course work and part of the testing for licensure. Additional training might be redundant. Also, it could take away from specialty-specific continuing education that might benefit a mental health professional more directly.

Second and perhaps more compelling: They don’t think the Legislature should be dictating their professional standards.

Generally, we would agree. The Legislature often meddles in things in which it has a political agenda but little expertise.

This is not one of those cases, however.

Levine, a San Rafael Democrat, was moved to carry this bill because of the disturbing uptick in suicide in the United States. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is supporting the bill, suicide increased by 31 percent between 2000 and 2010. Nearly 4,000 Californians take their lives each year, and more than 48,000 attempt to do so.

Suicide has a tremendous societal cost, and stopping it ought to be a priority of every health care provider, even if it might be a tad redundant for some.

The bill is supported by a host of organizations concerned with suicide prevention – the California Mental Health Directors Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness are just two examples – whose only motivation is to save lives.

There’s a good chance Gov. Jerry Brown will veto the bill based on his treatment of a similar one by former Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, in 2011. In that bill, Kehoe suggested that licensed health care professionals such as doctors and nurses should take a continuing education course to learn how to care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

“I believe that respective licensing boards are better suited than the Legislature or the Governor to decide these matters,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

In most cases, he would be correct. But sometimes, especially when it might prevent death, boards need a push in the right direction.

This is one of those times.