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Forefront honors State Rep. Tina Orwall for public service

Forefront honors State Rep. Tina Orwall for public service

State Representative Tina Orwall

Forefront presented its first and highest honor to State Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33rd Dist.), the lawmaker who led passage of a bill requiring Washington health professionals to undergo training in suicide prevention. The legislation made history as the first of its kind in the nation.

Now titled the Tina Orwall Public Service Award, the inaugural honor was presented during Forefront’s launch event, Sept. 10 at the University of Washington.

Orwall’s head for policy and heart for the vulnerable made her the perfect sponsor when Jenn Stuber and Sue Eastgard proposed a bill requiring suicide prevention training for health professionals. “There was no one better than Tina to get involved,” said Eastgard, The Matt Adler Suicide, Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012 (ESHB 2366) makes suicide prevention training part of the continuing education requirement for mental health professionals, social workers and occupational therapists.

Stuber’s husband, Matt Adler, died by suicide while under treatment for severe depression and anxiety. After his death, Stuber discovered that health care professionals weren’t required to know how to identify or treat suicidal intentions. Orwall’s own training as a clinical social worker had not included suicide prevention, but 20 years of experience taught her how vital that knowledge can be.

She attributes the bill’s success to early support and compelling testimony from a statewide coalition of loss-survivors, psychologists and others. Stuber, Eastgard and others, including Lucy Homans of the Washington State Psychological Association, provided the coalition and Orwall persisted in navigating the shoals of a contentious, budget-strapped session.

Despite strong committee support, the bill almost died four or five times along the way. Orwall said she was “so touched by Jenn’s courage and strength during such a personally difficult time that I had to keep going.” She called the bill’s passage as the most exciting and most difficult accomplishment of her five years in the state House.

In 2013 Orwall and the coalition were instrumental in passing HB 1336, which improves the capacity of schools to identify and intervene with students who are struggling with emotional issues and suicidal thoughts.  

“We’re moving forward in a way that will be a model for other states to follow,” she said.  Several states have inquired about the Matt Adler Act, and a few have since passed similar legislation. Orwall believes the biggest lesson is to build a coalition that crosses disciplines and gets involved early in the legislative process. Stuber and coalition member and QPR Institute president Paul Quinnett provide guidance in their paper laying out the process.  

Orwall said these two laws are just the beginning. She’s counting on Forefront to sustain the effort that has taken state policy this far in a short period of time. Maintaining momentum can be more challenging than building the initial coalition, she warned.  And implementing a law is infinitely more difficult than passing it. “There’s so much work yet to be done.”

She’s meeting now with veterans and others concerned about training to meet the needs of military culture, including PTSD, and primary care. “We need to bring the coalition back together to work on this,” she said.  She’s also hearing from physicians with ideas on how to integrate mental health and primary care.

“Any time we are looking at health care policy, we have an opportunity,” she said. “Best practices point to a team approach where everyone along the health care spectrum knows the signs and gets people into treatment.” Although professionals may differ in the details, she senses agreement around the goal of saving lives.

“We know we can do a better job,” Orwall said,  “when we do early intervention and quality care.”