Specialty Practice Sections: June / July 2023

By Paul R. Pace

Social Workers Are Ethically Bound to Address Inequities Around Suicide Risk

anxious woman playing with tissue

There is a lot of anxiety these days among social workers and other mental health practitioners around the rise in suicide rates, particularly among youth, says Jonathan Singer, PhD, LCSW, professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work and founder and host of the Social Work Podcast.

The latest data from the World Health Organization shows that globally, the rate of suicide has been trending down from 2000 to 2019. In the Americas, however, the trend has risen slightly in the same time period.

Singer hosts the NASW Specialty Practice Sections webinar, Ethical Social Work with Suicidal People. He discusses the latest trends in suicide rates and suicide risks as well as the ethical dilemmas that social workers may encounter when treating clients who may be suicidal.

Data on suicide are a couple of years behind in its reporting in the U.S., Singer explained.

The latest data from 2021 show there is an average 132 deaths by suicide every day in the U.S.

According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report:

  • The provisional number of suicides for 2021 (47,646) was 4% higher than the 2020 final number (45,979), but was still 1% below the 2018 peak (48,344).
  • Numbers of suicides were higher in 2021 than in 2020 for 9 months, with the largest percentage increase occurring in October (11%).
  • The increase in the number of suicides was greater for males (4%) than females (2%), with the provisional 2021 number for males (38,025) nearly four times that of females (9,621).
  • Suicide numbers for males were lower in 2021 than in 2020 for all months of the first quarter of the year (January, February and March) and again in July, but higher for all other months.
  • For females, numbers were lower in 2021 than in 2020 for six months throughout the year and higher for the remaining six months.

“Keep in mind that suicide is inherently a social act,” Singer said. “If we want a world where people feel like their lives are worth living, we can’t have a society that says some lives are worth more than others.”

There are disparities around suicide risk that are important to be aware of —structural inequities that we as social workers are ethically bound to address, he said. For example, the suicide rates for American Indian and Alaskan Native youth are almost double that of white youth.

When it comes to young people, the U.S. suicide rate for people ages 10-24, from 1999-2021, has risen nearly steadily, according to the CDC. There is an upward trend in youth suicide starting in the year 2007, Singer pointed out. For males in the U.S., the suicide rate increases significantly between ages 10-25, then a slight decrease at age 31, followed by an upward trend in the last years of their life. Females are more likely to attempt suicide, but males are more like to die by suicide because they use more lethal means, Singer said. Middle-aged white men in the U.S. have significantly higher suicide rates than any other demographic group.

“For all of you who work with middle-age white men, check on them,” Singer said, “because sometimes they do not reach out and let you know what is going on.”

LGBTQ youth are much more likely to report thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts, than cis and heterosexual youth, Singer noted. CDC survey data has shown fairly consistently that 40% to 50% of LGBTQ youth reported thoughts of suicide in the past year, and 15% to 25% reported at least one suicide attempt in the past year. For cis and heterosexual youth, 14% report suicidal thoughts and 6% report at least one suicide attempt in the past year.

In terms of suicide deaths, data are not reliable in terms of the LGBTQ community. Death certificates do not have sexual orientation or sexual identity on them; they have sex assigned at birth, Singer said. It’s part of ethical practice to have a context to know who you are working with who may be suicidal, he noted.

Webinar attendees will:

  • Learn how personal attitudes and opinions about suicide influence professional action;
  • Articulate professional standards of care for suicidal clients; and
  • See reference to the relevant ethical principles when working with suicidal clients.

SPS Webinar: Ethics-Based Protocols Help Protect Clients and Practitioners

Even the most seasoned social workers need state-of-the-art protocols to prevent malpractice claims and licensing board complaints. The NASW SPS webinar, Risk Management in Social Work: Practical Strategies to Protect Clients and Prevent Malpractice and Licensing-Board Complaints, provides participants with “must have” information to protect clients and practitioners. Key topics include trends in malpractice claims and licensing board complaints; high-risk areas of social work practice; and practical strategies to protect clients and practitioners.

Learning objectives are:

  • Identify common causes of malpractice claims and licensing board complaints filed against social workers
  • Apply ethics-based protocols to protect clients.
  • Design and implement practical strategies designed to prevent malpractice claims and licensing board complaints.

cover of June / July 2023 issue

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