Social workers adopt new national policy on suicide prevention thanks to Waterloo students

'It all started with a group of students who just wanted to send a clear message and I had no idea that message would go to the national level,' says student Natasha Ekelman, who presented the idea of suicide prevention training to a national conference earlier this month.

'I had no idea that message would go to the national level,' student Natasha Ekelman says

The McCullough Centre in Gunn, Alta. could support up to 75 homeless men's recovery from addiction or mental health issues. (Peerayot/Shutterstock)

A new policy that says all those studying social work in Canada must take suicide prevention training, actually started as a class project by a group of five University of Waterloo students.

Natasha Ekelman and four other students were working on a social change event for a class.

"In the midst of that assignment, we realized that [social work] students aren't really trained in suicide intervention skills training, but often we're being put in placements where we encounter individuals who are feeling suicidal and we're not really trained on how to manage that," said Ekelman.

The group of students from Renison University College, which is affiliated with the University of Waterloo, successfully lobbied to have all students in the school's social work program taught suicide prevention.

Then, earlier this month, Ekelman presented their proposal to a national student caucus at the Canadian Association for Social Work Education in Calgary, which which involves professionals working in the field.

Although support at the CASWE annual general meeting was not as resounding as Ekelman would have liked, it passed.

Now, all social work students in Canada must take suicide prevention training.

"It all started with a group of students who just wanted to send a clear message and I had no idea that message would go to the national level, which, I'm still in awe," Ekelman said.

Good training for first responders

The motion only passed by 27 votes, and Ekelman said it is unclear why some members at the conference didn't support the proposal she brought forward.

"To see some colleagues that are in the field not vote for this, it was concerning for me," Ekelman said.

No one said why they didn't support it, which Ekelman said was upsetting.

Suicide knows no barriers

Ekelman said when she presented the idea to the student caucus at CASWE, an Aboriginal woman stood up and "thanked the whole student caucus" for seeing it as a serious issue, Ekelman said.

The woman said while suicide is an issue that seriously impacts Aboriginal youth, it knows no barriers.

"It was such a powerful moment and we were both in tears," she said.

Ekelman said recent news stories about students in Woodstock, Ont., killing themselves confirms to her this training is needed.

"Having someone trained and just being able to say, 'Are you thinking about killing yourself?' and being very direct and to the point, it opens up opportunity for people to not be alone in their thoughts," she said.

Ekelman would like to see a similar policy extended to all first responders, such as paramedics, firefighters, nurses, police and doctors.