Depression is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide, and people who seek help for it tend to go to their regular doctor. But, as one Seattle family discovered, doctors aren’t always prepared to deal with a patient who has thoughts of suicide. A new law in Washington state, the first of its kind nationwide, seeks to change that.
A Surprising Discovery
Jennifer Stuber, a Seattle mom of two, lost her husband, Matt Adler, to suicide three years ago.
“My husband, really…he did not want to die. He was just in deep psychological pain, and he felt quite hopeless and didn’t think he was going to get better, and he needed help,” Stuber said.
Adler did go for help. He saw four medical professionals before he died, and as she discovered in poring over his medical records, had brought up suicide to three of them early on.
“And the professionals, you know, weren’t helping him, or taking his suicidal ideation seriously,” Stuber said.
Trying to make sense of her husband’s suicide, Stuber talked to experts. In fact, as a health policy professor at the University of Washington, she could identify the experts. But she was shocked by their response.
“They said, ‘You know we’re really sorry for your loss, but it’s not surprising, because there’s no health professional that’s actually required to know anything about how to handle suicidal individuals,’” Stuber said.
New Law Requires Training
Stuber’s profound loss led her on a journey which ended up at the state Legislature. She helped spearhead a new law that requires all doctors and nurses — that’s 140,000 professionals — to have training in suicide prevention. Local experts say at least half of those who complete suicide have seen their primary care doctor less than a month before their death.
State medical societies opposed the law, saying there isn’t enough evidence that shows the training works. But Stuber says in some cases, just asking the right questions in the primary care setting can help save a life.
“We know, for example, that if you counsel patients who are at risk for suicide, and their families, about restricting access to things like guns, that that makes a huge difference in terms of reducing the suicide rates. That’s the exact kind of thing you can put into a training like this,” she said.
Doctors don’t always have the time and expertise to manage a patient on a long-term basis, and so additional psychiatric resources, including a consult line, will be set up to help doctors.
Coping By Helping Others Cope
For Stuber, understanding suicide helps her heal, and her husband’s memory propels her forward.
“You know, there’s a lot of people out there who are experiencing suicidal ideation right now, and I’m letting them know if they can continue to push forward and get treatment, that there is the possibility for recovery and feeling better,” she said.
Stuber and her two children joined Gov. Jay Inslee on March 27 when he signed the new law.