Training More Social Workers in Dialectical Behavior Therapy Could Be a Solution to Rising Suicide Rates

August 30, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

Researchers have documented the increase in suicide rates, particularly in the Black community and among children and young adults. The New York Times reported that from 1991 to 2019, suicide attempts by Black youth increased by nearly 80 percent, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that Black males between the ages of 10 and 19 “are twice as likely to die by suicide as compared to their white counterparts.” In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for this group. As the demand for mental health care increases, what steps will be necessary to close the gap between patients in need and access to a mental health care provider?

Although health care officials have begun to take action to fight the ongoing suicide crisis, many individuals in need are still unable to access mental health care due to a lack of providers. With over 750,000 social workers serving as the largest group of mental health care providers in the United States, the ability to work with suicidal individuals has become essential to the role, and a critical component of an effective and sustainable response to the current mental health crisis.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which now forms the core of a unique suicide prevention training program at the Columbia School of Social Work, is a key way in which CSSW aims to be part of the solution. The unique one-year program is the only program of its kind at a school of social work. It comprises a rigorous academic curriculum, including summer classes, paired with field-based DBT internship experience. Students also receive 10 days of DBT Intensive Training, provided by affiliate company Behavioral Tech, LLC, and attend a workshop seminar in Suicide Risk Assessment and Management.

DBT was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Professor Emeritus of the University of Washington, a psychologist who has experienced suicidal thoughts and impulses herself, and been hospitalized for extended periods of time with no improvement which lead her to develop this approach. Founded in 2004 by Director Professor André Ivanoff, a longtime colleague and collaborator of Linehan’s, Columbia’s DBT Training Program deemphasizes hospitalization in favor of problem-solving techniques, large amounts of validation, and an emphasis on building what DBT practitioners call “a life worth living.”

DBT is one of many steps forward in addressing the ongoing suicide epidemic. An increase in the implementation of this evidence-based psychotherapy will help social workers refine their interpersonal and professional skills as the leading mental health practitioners in the country. The rising rate of suicide is a mutifaceted issue caused by mental and physical illness, racism and oppression, substance abuse, financial instability, and so much more. Social workers have a deeply intersectional understanding of these major contributing factors; they are constantly working to improve equitable access to care, which looks different for every individual who is struggling with suicidal thoughts/actions. Although social workers are at the frontline of this issue, everyone has a role to play in destigmatizing mental health and suicide, from federal healthcare systems all the way down to the individual level.

Note: If you have suicidal thoughts or ideations, or are concerned about a friend or loved one who does, call 988 or another crisis care call center.