On 3 September I attended the First Responders Suicide Prevention Forum in Perth, leading up to World Suicide Prevention Day next week on 10 September. The theme was One World Connected.
While this isn’t my usual happy post, I posted something similar last year. This topic is a really important one and needs to be talked about openly, by everyone.
The current suicide rate is almost double the road toll – 360 deaths per year in Western Australia, almost one every day.
The topic of suicide is close to my heart, having lost two friends to suicide, and very nearly losing a family member as well as an ex-partner. I’ve also worked with a lot of suicidal individuals. I’ve done everything from informal counselling, coaching and interventions, to cleaning up a bathroom full of blood following a very serious suicide attempt. I always take time out of my week to attend forums about suicide prevention as a professional, but also as a person who has walked through this trauma with people she loves.
Every life is valuable… and every death is preventable. The forum aims for a 50% reduction in suicides by 2025.
Suicide is a taboo subject and the current strategy is to get people talking. The topic of suicide has historically been seen as only something professionals should talk to people about. This view is now changing to become one where suicide is everybody’s concern, as well as being a public health issue for those left behind – those who are unsuccessful in their suicide attempts, as well as the mental health of the families and friends left behind.
By 2020 it is predicated that mental illness will be the leading cause of illness.
We ALL have a part to play in reducing the impact on the community.
Minister Helen Morton was present and presented at the forum. She has been focusing her time on talking about suicide at a community level as well as a Government level to find out what can be done. The issue of suicide prevention is now gaining traction and we need to keep the momentum going. Suicide rates are across the board, unaffected by socio-economic backgrounds, and it’s now the leading cause of death among young people. For every person who successfully suicides, there are around 15 more who have made attempts on their lives. These attempts lead to multiple health issues. Helen Morton wants zero attempts – that’s her aim, although she is aware that this likely won’t happen in her lifetime. She believes that every death is preventable, and even though zero deaths is unlikely, it doesn’t stop her from this target being her focus. The Government has put $21 million into this campaign already, with another $3m to be committed next year.
Every day people each have a responsibility to check in on each other. Helen Morton likens this to knowing how to do first aid/CPR – if somebody was having a heart attack would you ignore them and wait for the professionals to turn up? It’s the same with suicidal ideation/behaviour. Why wait for the professional? There is always something you can do to help in the meantime, while waiting for the professional help. We can provide support to that person which can keep them alive.
We also had a very inspiring Skype chat with Kevin Briggs, dialling in from San Francisco. He was a Sergeant who retired from service early at the end of last year to set up his own suicide prevention organisation, Pivotal Points. Kevin started working on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran in 1994 and around twice a month would find himself talking people out of committing suicide, to the point where he was dubbed The Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge. Kevin saved upwards of 200 people, and only two people of all those he spoke to went on to jump after he intervened. Most of the people he met had been off their medication for at least two weeks. Kevin started Pivotal Points to address mental illness and train people up as “first responders.” He had no formal training in suicide prevention when he first worked the Golden Gate Bridge, and learned through doing as well as from his colleagues. He later attended the FBI’s Academy to be trained in crisis intervention, and he would still like to see a lot more training being done.
Kevin gave some great advice for how to approach someone who is expressing that they want to commit suicide. He would ask them “what do you have planned for tomorrow?” If they had no plan, he would help them make one. He would let them know that if they got through tomorrow and they still felt the same way, then they could come back to the bridge tomorrow.
Kevin described his own past trauma and his own experience of depression. He stated that mental illness is “like an insidious element that can take hold of you and drag your life through the dirt.”
Kevin suggests that those who are feeling this way would benefit from self care, being open with those around them and talking about how they feel rather than repressing their feelings. Engage in exercise, meditation, good nutrition. Link in with anyone who can help – this doesn’t need to be a counsellor or psych – it can be a personal trainer, your hairdresser, a life coach, getting a massage, peer support, your employee assistance program – whatever works. Get out there and socialise and listen to music. Do those things that reduce stress – our bodies aren’t meant for such chronic stress exposure that we have in the world today with unrelenting demands placed on us from the minute we wake up, leading to burnout, depression, fatigue and irritability.
If you encounter someone who is suicidal, ask yourself “does this person need to be admitted to hospital to keep them safe?” Build rapport with them through eye contact and good body language, leaning towards them and showing you’re listening to what they have to say. Don’t interrupt them. Go on a fact finding mission in your conversation, get their story. Normalise how they feel. Raise the topic of suicide – don’t be afraid of this. It won’t give them ideas they don’t already have. Say something like “Bob, sometimes when people are in such great pain they think about killing themselves. Do you have those thoughts? How long have you had those thoughts for? Do you have a plan? How would you do it? Are there any other ways you’ve thought about killing yourself?” Get as much information as possible. Ask “on your worst days, during your waking hours, how long do you spend thinking about killing yourself? 70%? 80%? 90%” this gives you an indication as to how they feel usually. Ask about their family, goals, what similar interests do you have.
For some, suicide ideation has become a coping mechanism – it is the only thing that makes sense in their world. High emotions = low rational thought. As someone supporting a suicidal person, we have to really keep our own emotions in check during these times.
Kevin warns against using these damaging phrases:
“Calm down” – people don’t like to hear this when they are in a highly emotional state.
“You should” – instead say “have you tried this?”
“Why” – this places blame on the person and they will shut down.
“I understand” – you don’t. You’re not them.
Try to put yourself in their shoes. You can see their desperation – they are tired, tired of feeling the way they do and tired of living.
The stigma of suicide needs to be addressed. Suicide used to be illegal because if you were dead, you couldn’t pay taxes (!). When I was working as a Probation Officer in London it was still on the drop-down menu of the list of offences when doing risk assessments and pre-sentence reports.
We ALL have a responsibility to educate others.
Acknowledging your mental illness and saying you need help is tough – but not seeking help is tougher.
If you’re feeling like you are struggling with this at the moment – please know that help is out there. I would love for you to extend your hand to me, and reach out. I’m here for you. Let’s chat, and work through this together. Email me ~ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you ready to stop struggling through life? Are you sick of feeling like you’re stuck in survival mode? Come and join my other members who are also on their journey From Surviving To Thriving.
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