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N.H. Health Institute Awarded Grant to Develop Suicide Prevention Course

By Sharon Keeler
UNH News Bureau
(603) 862-1566

June 20, 2003


DURHAM, N.H. -- Nearly 30,000 people in the United States commit suicide each year, with another 650,000 requiring emergency care after attempting to take their own lives. Despite these facts, social workers who often serve these clients receive little direct training during their education on how to recognize suicidal behavior and intervene.

This is about to change. Thanks to a $130,000 grant from the Suicide Prevention Partnership, funded by the Irving and Barbara C. Gutin Foundation, University of New Hampshire Assistant Professor of Social Work Barry Feldman, M.S.W., Ph.D., will develop and pilot test a curriculum to educate post-graduate social workers about the knowledge and skills needed to assess and manage suicidal clients.

The grant comes through the New Hampshire Institute for Health Policy and Practice (NHIHPP) headquartered at UNH. An alliance among New Hampshire's Department of Health and Human Services, UNH's School of Health and Human Services and Dartmouth Medical School, the institute seeks to improve the health of and health care received by New Hampshire citizens.

According to Irving Gutin, of North Hampton and Boca Raton, Fla., the project is important because it supports one of the major goals of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

"Implementing training for the recognition of at-risk behavior and delivery of effective treatment is a national goal," Gutin says. "In this country, the medical community has made tremendous strides in diagnosing and treating illness of the body. Diagnosing and treating what goes on in the mind needs equal progress."

"The implications for our region significant," says Ned Helms, NHIHPP director. We will be able to put into the hands and practices of clinicians tools that they have told us they need. Further, we will be able to assess the effectiveness of that training and, based on that, extend these curricula to others around the country. We are deeply grateful that the Gutin Foundation has asked us at UNH to do this work."

Gutin, retired chair of the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation, has a personal reason as well. He lost his son, Jeffrey, a successful lawyer, to suicide several years ago. No one recognized the signs.

While adolescents and the elderly experience the highest rates of suicide, this issue crosses the lifespan. In New Hampshire, for example, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 25- to 34-year-olds, and third leading cause of death of those from 35 to 44.

As part of the project, Feldman surveyed directors and deans of MSW-accredited programs throughout New England and other parts of the United States. He found that none of these programs were offering continuing education courses on suicide intervention and prevention at that time, nor did they do so on a consistent basis.

In addition, a national survey sampling membership of the National Association of Social Workers was conducted to assess their education about, knowledge of, and attitudes toward suicide, as well as their suggestions for what should be included in a suicide course.

The survey revealed that 93 percent of the 598 respondents had worked with a suicidal client, yet the majority felt they were inadequately prepared. These social work professionals indicated both the need and desire for further training, while identifying continuing education workshops as the preferred method for such instruction.

"We've demonstrated that our hypothesis is correct and that there is a need for what we are doing," Feldman says. "Social workers are often in a crucial position to intervene with clients and can play a central role in the lives of suicidal clients. We're starting here, but hope this education can eventually include other allied health professions."

Feldman is preparing the model curriculum and the pilot course, which will be offered this fall. He also will conduct a six-month post-education survey to find out whether social workers found the information helpful and whether they used this knowledge in their work.

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