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National Suicide Prevention Month: An Expert's Advocacy Guide

Each year, approximately 47,500 people die by suicide. While it is the tenth leading cause of death overall in this country, it is alarmingly the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of ten and 34.

While the number of suicide deaths steadily increased from 1999 to 2018, it finally saw a slight dip in 2019: “The bulk of suicide deaths in this country are by white men who are middle age to old age. When we saw the suicide rates go down in the last two years, it was driven by lower rates in white men, but we saw increased trends for young black males and Hispanic males,” shares Dr. Jane Pearson, special advisor to the director of National Institute of Mental Health on Suicide Research.

However, deaths are not the only numbers that matter. Many more people struggle with thoughts of self-harm or have attempted suicide. “If you look at attempts, typically young women have more attempts compared to their male counterparts,” says Dr. Pearson. According to current CDC research, as many as one in five high school students have considered suicide.

To increase awareness of this epidemic, September is designated as National Suicide Prevention Month. Mental health organizations across the country collaborate to share the message that help is available from professionals able and willing to work with clients through their crises. “We want the message to be that you might have thoughts of suicide, but you deserve help and treatment,” says Dr. Pearson.

She stresses that there is a need for more professionals in this field and believes in new approaches: “There’s an approach to behavioral health called ‘collaborative care’ where you have a team that includes a primary care doctor, a social worker, and a psychiatrist who work together as a team to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and how to change course to get this person better faster.”

“I think we’re making progress,” says Dr. Pearson optimistically. “We are funding new treatments that can jumpstart feeling better. And they can be followed up by other treatments that help clients maintain and build skills. It’s important to remember that things take time.”

Keep reading to learn more about how to get involved with National Suicide Prevention Month, online education programs in suicide prevention, typical careers for professionals in this field, and resources for getting started in this career.

Meet The Expert: Jane Pearson, PhD

Jane Pearson

Dr. Jane Pearson is a widely-recognized authority on suicide and suicide prevention with expertise in clinical psychology and public health strategies. She serves as the special advisor to the director of NIMH on Suicide Research. She leads the NIMH Suicide Research Team and serves on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Research Task Force. She assisted in the development of the first Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide and the first U.S. National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

Dr. Pearson is also an adjunct associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. She has practiced as a licensed clinical psychologist and has authored papers on the ethical and methodological challenges of suicide research.

The Importance of Suicide Prevention Month

When working to raise awareness around suicide, Dr. Pearson offers a word of caution: “When we report on how common suicidal ideation is, we want to be really careful because we don’t want to say, oh, it’s just normal to think about suicide. If somebody is thinking about it, there’s something terribly distressing going on, and we would really like to help them,” she urges. “So we want the message to be, it is common, but there is help and not just, oh, everybody’s got it, and you should just muddle along alone.”

Dr. Pearson adds that while some people may feel like suicide prevention is a lost cause, she does not. “We want people to understand that there is help. Some people will say, well, even if you prevent it, this time, somebody will eventually kill themselves. That’s not true. Most people are quite ambivalent, and they want help. With Suicide Prevention Month, we have an opportunity for different organizations to make people aware of that,” she says.

In fact, a lot of help is available from several local, state, and federal organizations. The most prominent is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where those experiencing thoughts of self-harm can chat with a trained professional over the phone or via text. Call 1-800-273-TALK/988 after July 16, 2022 or message 838255 for text.

Careers in Suicide Prevention

It takes various skilled professionals to tackle suicide prevention: “There are so many committed people in this area. It’s such a complex problem, that if you’re starting to solve some of it, it actually helps in other areas. When you pull people together and start doing something better that’s tackling suicide, it’s going to help” says Dr. Pearson.

Here are a few professions that are working to prevent suicide:

Become a Mental Health Counselor

While all mental health counselors should have some suicide prevention training, there is the option of specializing in crisis care and suicide prevention. Counselors who want to work in this niche need to complete additional training in suicide prevention to learn the techniques they can use to help a patient at risk of self-harm.

Become a School Counselor

“The CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey has found that it can be as high as one in five to one in six high school and middle school students have thought about suicide,” says Dr. Pearson.

While school counselors aren’t the only people who can help students at risk of suicide, they are key members of the school’s administrative team. In fact, ten states require school counselors to complete suicide prevention training or continuing education.

Become a Suicide Prevention Researcher

Research is needed to better understand the causes of suicide and how to prevent it. Suicide prevention researchers work in universities or government agencies like the National Insitute for Mental Health where they are responsible for conducting surveys, analyzing data, and publishing results that can form new evidence-based practices to help those struggling with self-harm.

Become a Social Worker

Social workers work with diverse populations to provide mental health care or help them access social services. Like mental health counselors, they should receive some level of suicide training while earning their master’s of social work degree. They can also take additional coursework to be a crisis or suicide prevention social worker who is called upon to work with the most at-risk clients.

Online Suicide Prevention Training Programs

Here are three online options for those wanting to work in suicide prevention.

Arizona State University – School of Social Work

The School of Social Work at Arizona State University offers an online continuing education class on suicide prevention and intervention. This class is three hours long and over Zoom, so participants can participate anywhere.

During the class students, will learn about the prevalence of suicide, the terms used to describe suicide and self-harm in popular culture, how to identify potentially suicidal behavior, and how to help clients in danger of self-harm. The class is taught by Denise Beagley, who holds a master’s of science in counseling psychology and has extensive experience in crisis intervention.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Duration: Three hours
  • Accreditation: National Board for Certified Counselors
  • Tuition: $59 per credit

Evangel University

The four-course online undergraduate certificate in crisis intervention and suicide prevention at Evangel University is designed for all professionals in helping fields. Students will learn about the common causes of crises and how to assist those experiencing a crisis. Topics covered include sexual abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

Each course is only five weeks long, allowing students to complete their coursework quickly. Courses in this program are also part of the bachelor’s of science in behavioral health at Evangel, so students can use these classes to complete a degree should they so choose.

  • Location: Springfield, MO
  • Duration: Four courses
  • Accreditation: The Higher Learning Commission
  • Tuition: $780 program

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Students looking for a formal certificate program can complete the suicide and cyberbullying certificate at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. This certificate includes three courses: trauma and crisis intervention, global issues in suicide, and social media and cyberbullying.

To be eligible to complete this certificate, applicants must already have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution. This course is specifically designed for anyone working in healthcare or mental health and may interact with clients who are at risk of self-harm. Professionals who work in policy, government, or administration may also find this course useful.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: Three terms
  • Accreditation: American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Tuition: $1,253 per credit

Resources for Starting a Career in Suicide Prevention

Getting started in a career in suicide prevention can begin with volunteer opportunities or working for a local community organization that helps those in crisis. Here are some of the top organizations working in suicide prevention:

  • U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • Tribal Training and Technical Assistance (TTA)
  • American Association of Suicidology (AAS)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
  • National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC)
  • Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE)
  • Trevor Project

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.