California has become the seventh state in the country to require that all licensed psychologists be trained in suicide risk assessment and intervention.
On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 89, which starting on Jan. 1, 2020, will mandate that anyone applying for licensure as a psychologist in California completes a minimum of six hours of coursework or experience under supervision in suicide prevention, and that already-licensed clinicians also complete this training.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Marin County, and the California Board of Psychology, is both a practical and symbolic victory for suicide prevention, said Vic Ojakian, a former Palo Alto mayor who with his wife, Mary, became well-known mental health advocates after their college-aged son died by suicide. The bill was co-authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto.
Over the last several months Ojakian corralled support for the bill from up and down the state, including from numerous Palo Altans who wrote individual letters of support, he said. Palo Alto youth wellbeing collaborative Project Safety Net also solicited support from its members.
Practically, a high percentage of people who die by suicide see a mental health clinician prior to their death, Ojakian said. Mandated, standardized training will help ensure psychologists throughout the state are more prepared to recognize warning signs and treat patients accordingly.
"The fact that people will get more training and frankly be a little more sensitive about ... the risk factors folks exhibit and address means it (the law) could have practical outcomes of saving lives," he said.
"All California psychologists, regardless of where they live and who they serve, will have training, which means it cross-cuts age, institutions and geographical areas," he added.
Symbolically, having such a requirement become state law sends the message that suicide is a "significant public health matter" that will not be ignored, Ojakian said.
In California, on average, one person dies of suicide every two hours, according to the Board of Psychology. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that suicide is the third leading cause of death for Californians ages 15 to 34, and was the 10th leading cause of death for Californians of all ages between 2000 and 2015.
A Board of Psychology survey conducted after Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2014 found "significant variances in the amount of education and training being provided to psychologists and applicants," Board President Stephen Phillips wrote in the Board's support message for AB 89.
"Competency in the assessment and treatment of suicidal patients is not a fixed quality, but rather requires ongoing education and training for licensees who may have received their training many years ago," Phillips wrote. "It is the Board's hope that by sponsoring AB 89 and highlighting the critical importance of suicide prevention training in the field of psychology, it will encourage licensees to periodically re-evaluate their level of competency in assessing and treating suicidal patients and further encourage licensees to seek additional training in suicide risk assessment and intervention."
Ojakian is hopeful that California's passage of AB 89 will inspire other states to follow suit.
The next step in California, he said, will be to draft similar legislation for other mental health clinicians such as social workers and licensed marriage and family therapists.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
The link below provides more resources where one can receive help: