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November 7, 2015

How can you prevent suicide?

Reuel S. Amdur

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safeTalk is a mnemonic. Safe is for "Suicide Alertness for Everyone," emphasizing that the role is not just for professionals. The City of Ottawa offers the half-day safeTalk training for all its employees. Talk is for "Tell, Ask, Listen, and Keep safe." The program is designed and carried out by LivingWorks.

The layman can help prevent suicide.  Basically, four things are required: an ability to notice clues, an ability to ask about suicide, an ability to listen non-judgmentally, and an ability to connect the person with help.

According to trainer Shaun Tobin, half the people will have suicidal thoughts at some time during their lifetime.  At any given time, five per cent will.  Tobin said that most people who are thinking of suicide are likely to tell, or give clues, to someone, not a health professional.  “It is rare that someone who commits suicide does not leave at least a hint to anyone.”  If he does tell or hint, that can be seen as an invitation to intervene.

What are clues that someone may be thinking of suicide?  The person may be careless about personal appearance.  He may be giving away things.  He may be showing indifference about things and may be becoming more distant from people.  The person may have low energy and be moody and there may be a change in his use of alcohol or drugs.

What are some examples of hints?  “No one calls anymore.”  “I just can’t take it anymore.” “What’s the point in living?” “There is just no purpose; I need to escape.”  “I’m a burden.”  “Everything is so hopeless.”  “I can’t stop crying.”  T is for talk.

While there is no group in society immune from suicide, some groups are more susceptible.  Among these are homosexuals, Aboriginals, people who are mentally ill, people who have lost a job or a relationship, and substance abusers.  Especially because those close to someone who has killed himself may feel guilty about not having preventing the event, they are also a group at risk.

When there are signs that a person may be suicidal, the person should be asked directly.  A is for ask.  Asking may be uncomfortable for the asker, but rest assured that the person will not be offended, even if the answer is no.  While asking may be difficult, the consequences of not asking are potentially fatal.

One example of a question: “Sometimes when people miss work, are worrying about things, and withdraw from friends, they are talking about suicide.  Are you?”  Raising the question will not make the person likely to begin thinking about suicide if he was not already doing so.  In posing the question, you are accepting the invitation to intervene.

L is for listen.  The person needs to be given the chance to tell why he does not want to live.  Do not argue or offer solutions. Listen.  You are not going to fix the problem.

When the person has talked himself out, do not accept any effort to minimize.  Say, “This is important.”  Now is the time for K: keep safe.  Connect the person with a helping resource, a distress line, a hospital, doctor, or other health professional, for example.  If the person objects, persist.  “I have to do this.”  Do not offer confidentiality.  Do remove any means of harm such as knives.  At the same time, keep yourself safe.  While most suicidal persons are not dangerous, a few are.

Not all listeners pick up on an invitation.  Most people do not have had the kind of training that those taking this program would have had.  Some invitations are simply missed.  Some are dismissed.  But every suicidal thought must be taken seriously.  And some invitations are simply avoided.   People may think that intervention will make matters worse.  It will not.  Or people may say to themselves, “I have my own troubles.”  

To be effective in helping the potential suicide, it is important to be sensitive and caring.  Yet, the helper needs to be direct, no beating around the bush.  As well, he should be calm, patient, and non-judgmental.

So what if the best efforts fail?  Was it your fault?  Not necessarily.  If a person wants to commit suicide strongly enough, he may succeed regardless of the most skilled intervention.  Don’t take it personally and don’t blame yourself.

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