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New UW-based nonprofit focuses on suicide prevention

ForeFront

ForeFront -

After her husband committed suicide in 2011, Jennifer Stuber, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, worked with state legislators and other academics to require mental health professionals in Washington State to train in suicide prevention and crisis planning. She co-founded Forefront, a non-profit organization for suicide prevention, with clinician Sue Eastgard. 

Photo by Anastasia Stepankowsky

In 2011, nearly 1,000 people committed suicide in Washington. One of those individuals was an attorney named Matt Adler, who left behind his wife Jennifer Stuber, an assistant professor in the UW School of Social Work, and their two kids.

After receiving Adler’s mental health records, Stuber said she was startled and disturbed to discover that the three mental health professionals her husband had been seeing before his death had been worried he was going to commit suicide but “didn’t really seem to know what to do.” Fellow UW faculty members told her this knowledge was tragic but not surprising, as they believed the professionals don’t receive enough training to effectively deal with individuals who are suicidal.

“This kind of critique of health professionals, not just mental health professionals but also primary care professionals, is one that has been voiced for many years but hasn’t been addressed,” Stuber said. “I really vowed to work on passing legislation that would better equip health professionals in the area.”

Stuber’s grief spurred her to action. She met with suicide prevention clinician Sue Eastgard, the former director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Washington state and the two founded Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention. The UW-based nonprofit was officially launched at the Husky Union Building on Sept. 10.

Suicide is regarded as both a major mental health problem and a public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. In 2010, one American died by suicide every 13.7 minutes.

The organization strives to reduce the number of suicides by enforcing the Matt Adler Suicide, Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012. The legislation consists of a six-hour suicide prevention training requirement for all Washington state mental health professionals. Health professionals will have to sign up for training, which will be offered by various organizations across the state, including Forefront, to earn a suicide prevention certificate that must be turned in by the following year to renew their license.

“It’s hard to pass a bill, but it’s even harder to implement a bill,” state representative Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) said. “[Forefront is] really a key player to move this legislation forward, make sure we have the best practices in training, and that we really continue the policies.”

With the help of Orwall, a UW Master of Social Work Program graduate with a background in community mental health, Stuber and Eastgard were able to build a statewide coalition of mental health experts, suicide prevention experts, and suicide survivors that was involved in the passage of the bill.

The coalition also successfully passed another law in 2012, focusing on suicide prevention at middle and high schools. Forefront is working to develop better crisis response plans and training for school health professionals. 

Jerry Reed, director of the national Suicide Prevention Resource Center, believes one particularly powerful aspect of Forefront is its collaborative base at the UW. The organization has brought together professors and researchers from the school of social work, the school of nursing, and the communication department, as well as educational psychologists from the school of education.

“The solution to suicide has to be comprehensive,” said Reed, who gave the keynote address at the Forefront launch party. “It’s not just treatment. It’s not just prevention. It’s not just aftercare. It’s all of those things that are absolutely essential to address suicide prevention … [and] bringing together interdepartmental and interdisciplinary partners as Forefront is trying to do will make sure that our approach and solutions are comprehensive.”

UW communication professor Randal Beam is one of Forefront’s many partners. Beam said he’s learned through the many articles he’s read that the way news organizations write about suicide tends to affect the chances of other vulnerable individuals committing suicide. As a journalism instructor, he encourages his students to cover sensitive topics such as suicide in a more thoughtful and careful way. He and Stuber are conducting research to better understand the kinds of effects media coverage has on suicide.

Currently, Forefront is continuing work with a new legislative policy. Stuber said the organization is pushing for required training for primary care doctors because while most adults do not see mental health professionals, they do tend to visit a primary care doctor regularly. She hopes that equipping primary care physicians with the ability to identify warning signs of suicide and appropriate prevention plans will help identify adults’ mental health problems earlier.

The nonprofit is also establishing Forefront Cares, a program that will connect people across the state who have lost someone to suicide to form a support system and provide available resources. Stuber said there are only seven grief support groups in Washington, and most are in communities where suicide is not very common.

“A lot of people who die by suicide have had someone in their family die by suicide,” Stuber said. “A big part of prevention is intervening … to help [people] develop better coping resources, to better help them understand suicide, to help them process their anger and fear.”

The Matt Adler act and the suicide prevention in schools law will both go into effect Jan. 1, 2014. In the meantime, Forefront is working to engage more volunteers, suicide survivors, and loss survivors and help them become involved in the prevention effort by advocating new policies and reaching out to individuals coping with suicidal thoughts or loss.

“The fact that we’re able to combine this huge survivor community and bring the expertise [of UW researchers and professors] to the table … and all that passion to get stuff done … that’s a very rare and amazing thing,” Stuber said.

Reach Special Sections Editor A. Jion Kim at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AJionKim

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