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Suicide Prevention

Social work and suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention

Social workers regularly come into contact with those who are at risk of or exposed to suicide, through direct practice, as well as in family, group, and community roles. It would be reasonable to assume that social workers would have a well-established research base to inform practice with such vulnerable populations.

However, social work authors have been notably missing in the scholarly literature on suicide.

Recently, our research team set out to expand on Joe & Neidermeier’s (2006) review of social worker-authored literature in the field of suicide. What we found closely mirrored Joe & Neidermeier’s results, namely the scarcity of studies aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of interventions.

Approximately 33% of the articles included in our review were categorized as descriptive studies, meaning that they merely offered a description of the suicide phenomena. A majority of the articles were categorized as explanatory (57%), which means that the focus of the study was explaining the relationship between variables or comparing groups. The focus of the explanatory and descriptive research being published by social workers was on young people, followed by psychotherapy, cultural/ethnic issues, bereavement, and research that aimed to understand attitudes toward and about suicide among professionals and the general public.

Only 10% of the articles were classified as control studies, meaning that the study was an examination of a service intervention for suicide prevention, treatment, or postvention. The result of this is that there is a paucity of research guiding direct practice through evaluation of efficacy and utility of social work interventions for suicide prevention.

 Social workers bring to the table an emphasis not only on the individual factors that may lead to suicide, but also the environmental influences that contribute to vulnerability.

Suicide rates have been rising for the last decade, and in the United States, suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death for adults and the 2nd leading cause of death for youth under the age of 24. These rates are similar across the globe in high and middle-income countries, with some groups significantly more vulnerable. For example, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are at higher risk, with double the rate of suicide as the non-Indigenous population. This is largely due to societal issues including oppression and marginalization, impacting these communities over long periods.

To reverse the trend, we need empirically supported interventions for those at risk of suicide and those suffering from the loss of a loved one to suicide, and to take into account the impact of suicide (attempt and death) on those who are exposed to others’ suicidal behaviors.

Social workers bring to the table an emphasis not only on the individual factors that may lead to suicide, but also the environmental influences that contribute to vulnerability.

Social workers work collaboratively in a variety of areas to meet the needs of clients and communities. Likewise, interdisciplinary efforts are needed in suicide research to tackle the challenge of suicide. Remaining committed to the core values of the social work profession while collaborating with other disciplines will be crucial. It is important that social workers contribute to the development, empirical testing, and dissemination of interventions, particularly interventions that are designed for marginalized and oppressed groups, as well as interventions that occur at the level of the environment, such as the family, peer group, or community. Interventions also need to address environmental risk factors that may predispose an individual to suicide.

Social workers should also lead the effort to research suicide among indigenous and rural populations. In the US, Canada, and Australia, Aboriginal suicide rates are higher than the suicide rates for the general population. As the social work profession engages in efforts to right the wrongs of the past, we must contribute to the development of culturally sensitive interventions.

Featured image credit: “1800” by Nic Dayton. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Garth anholt

    My wife committed suicide and as a result brought our family to its knees. So much guilt questions that can’t be be answered etc. I am looking for a support group for suicide is there any in Victoria area

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