Richard Briggs is juggling two careers: The Knoxville resident with many Farragut connections is a heart and lung surgeon and a state senator.
Although medicine and politics seem dissimilar, they can both involve matters of the heart.
Months before three student suicides rocked the Farragut community, Briggs, a Republican representing District 7, which includes Farragut, had already seen the need to do something. He, along with Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), sponsored the Kenneth and Madge Tullis, MD, Suicide Prevention Training Act and filed it near the first of the year. The Tullises had organized and co-chaired Tennessee’s first-ever Suicide Prevention Conference.
“When we filed this bill,” Briggs said in a recent phone call, “we had no idea that we were going to see the tragedies that happened at Farragut. But if some of these students had been talking either to ministers or to other counselors (I really don’t know the medical history of any of these children), maybe someone could have recognized that there was a very serious problem.”
The bill states that an estimated “90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, and most of them exhibit warning signs or behaviors prior to an attempt.”
The goal of the bill is to help lower the suicide rate in the State of Tennessee “by requiring certain health professionals to complete training in suicide prevention, assessment and screening, treatment, management, and postvention as part of their continuing education, continuing competency, and recertification requirement.”
Senate Bill 489 passed the Tennessee House and Senate and was signed into law on May 19.
Briggs said he hopes that the legislation will get help to troubled people of all ages.
“I had talked to some of the mental health professionals and some of the mental health organizations in the state and there were groups that were taking care of and counseling veterans. It wasn’t just in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals, but also church counselors, because we’ve had such a high suicide rate in the veterans who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But even beyond them, even in our elderly, we were seeing higher suicide rates — and in the young people. It wasn’t just here in Tennessee. This was everywhere. We felt that if we could require at least suicide recognition tendencies in people by counselors, whether they’re pastoral counselors, family counselors, occupational therapists … maybe they could recognize and ask the right questions … and have them referred to medical specialists … and maybe we could save some lives.”
The bill requires “the department of mental health and substance abuse services” to do
four things: 1. Develop, in collaboration with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, a model list of training programs.
2. Consider training programs of at least two hours in length that are based on expert consensus and adhere to high standards of suicide prevention;
3. Consult with health-related boards; public and private institutions of higher education; experts in suicide prevention, assessment, treatment, management, and postvention; and affected professional associations.
4. Report the model list of training programs to the department of health no later than Dec. 15, 2017.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, the following professionals must, at
least once every two years, complete a training program that is approved by the respective boards: social workers; marriage and family therapists, professional counselors, or pastoral counselors; alcohol and drug abuse counselors; occupational therapists and any other professional staff working in the field of mental health and substance abuse who has direct patient or client contact.
To read the bill, go to www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/110/Bill/SB0489.pdf.