Most people who have thoughts of suicide want help to stay alive. On Tuesday, I attended a training to help identify the ways in which people thinking of suicide may invite help from others. The program is called safeTALK.
safe stands for Suicide Alertness For Everyone
TALK stands for Tell Ask Listen KeepSafe
This is a difficult topic. No one wants to think that someone they know let alone someone they love could be having thoughts of suicide. I sure didn't want to, even when it became clear that my daughter felt she no longer wanted to be on this planet. At times, I wanted to bury my head in the sand because it hurt so much to think our beautiful, spirited, capable young girl had decided she had nothing to live for. Other times I was desperate for someone to tell me what to do, what words to say or actions to take that would ease her despair and regain her trust. I had no tools in my tool kit. I hope you never need this resource, but I want you to be better prepared than I was.
Suicide is terrifying, it's painful, and it's reality for far too many people.
According to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Each year, more than 42,000 people commit suicide. Each and every one of us can and must play a part in working to reduce this staggering number. How can we help? By becoming more aware.
Tuesday's presentation was 3 hours long and consisted of lecture, video tutorials, and role play to teach us the fundamentals of the safeTALK program.
Here's an overview:
TELL: Tell refers to the person having suicidal thoughts. More often than not the person will provide what this program calls "invitations" to others that they are thinking about suicide. Our role during Tell is to become more aware of what these invitations may look and sound like. Words like, "Why bother" or "I don't want to be here" or "I know the solution" can all be indications that a person is struggling. We may also be able to see that someone is struggling if they start to engage in uncharacteristic behaviors like self-harm or untended personal hygiene or excessive alcohol and drug consumption. We may even be able to sense their feelings of desperation, worthlessness, and shame. Being aware of these dynamics in a family member, friend, or co-worker is the first step in providing needed assistance.
ASK: This is very important: ASKING DIRECTLY ABOUT SUICIDE WILL NOT GIVE SOMEONE THE IDEA. In fact, when asked, most people will admit how they are feeling. Your question may be the ray of light they've been waiting for to reach out and share their feelings.
The ask is straightforward and specific: Sometimes when people are missing work, worrying about things and withdrawing from friends and family, they are thinking about suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?
You can of course change the ask to fit the circumstances of your situation, but the key is to justify the question with specifics and then ask the difficult question. And in a real conversation, it will come about more naturally than a blurting out like this. Asking in any way is better than in no way.
I know. Reading this you are probably thinking, I could never ask someone that. I get it. We had to do it in class with a made up story, and I felt like I was infringing on my partner's personal life. But we must overcome this fear. No one is expecting us to solve the problem. That is work for the professionals, but we can be a caring and compassionate conduit for someone who has been unwilling or unable to seek assistance. But we'll never know if we don't ask. Taking the plunge may prevent a lifetime of regret.
LISTEN: This may seem easy, but it requires some practice. We need to listen attentively and without judgment. Someone in deep emotional pain may be particularly sensitive to our body language. Be attentive, calm, and patient. Don't interrupt or jump into fix-it mode. (I have some close personal experience with this one.) If you don't know what to say, you may simply respond with, "There's so much going on. We need extra help," which brings us to the last aspect of TALK, Keepsafe.
KEEPsafe: Be prepared to connect the person with resources available through work, school, or otherwise, even 9-1-1. Remember, in areas like Ventura County, when you call 9-1-1 you can ask for a CIT trained officer. They have experience and training to assist people in a mental health crisis. (Click the document link below for an updated resource list for Ventura County. You can also find support here.)
Obviously, reading a post can't clue you in to all the ways invitations can be "missed, dismissed, or avoided." Nor can reading this post provide much needed practice that can help you break the barrier of fear and reticence that could prevent you from reaching out. Please, consider doing more. If you're interested in finding information about safeTALK and suicide prevention skills, click here. To look for a safeTALK training in your area, click here.
We can make a difference.