[trigger warning: discussion of suicide]
Last term, I had the opportunity of attending a Suicide Alertness Workshop through a trained facilitator from the Gerstein Crisis Centre. The workshop was called SAFEtalk, and it essentially taught me how to identify if someone is thinking about suicide, how to approach this person, how to be supportive, and most importantly: how to safely help this person help themselves.
Despite considering myself someone who is quite educated in mental health, there are a lot of misconceptions that I am grateful I was able to learn and correct. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1/4 of all deaths of individuals between the ages of 15-24 are due to suicide, making suicide the second leading cause of death among Canadians between the ages 10-24. Men are 4x more likely than women to die by suicide, but women are 3-4x more likely to attempt. Of course, other contributing factors such as mental illness, socioeconomic background, isolation, seasonal changes, and family history play a role.
Suicide can be an uncomfortable topic for many, including the person experiencing suicidal thoughts. It can be extremely difficult for those struggling to ask for help and get the support they need. Most people thinking about suicide do not want to die. They are, however, experiencing a lot of pain in their life, feeling a devastating sense of hopelessness. Something I found extremely powerful that the facilitator said was, “The mind is conflicting: it can want and feel opposing ideas at the same time.” In the case of suicide, it’s entirely possible to both want to die and live. As friends, family members, colleagues, classmates, and even strangers, we can intervene and help. But first, we have to be alert and adjust the way we identify, respond, and approach suicide.
Here is a summary of the 4 key steps of SAFEtalk. I hope you take the time to review. At any given time, 1 in 20 people is experiencing thoughts of suicide. Your knowledge and support could save a life.
Step 1: T – Tell
If you are thinking about suicide, tell someone. This is the most direct way to let someone know you are struggling. However, many people are not comfortable verbalizing their pain. As a Suicide Alert-Helper, it is your role to identify non-verbal ways someone is pulling back:
- Actions: Witnessing someone giving away things, withdrawing, isolating one self, abusing drugs or alcohol, crying, behaving abnormally, losing interest in prior hobbies, and/or saying goodbye;
- Talk: Saying things that relate to feeling alone, being a burden, wanting to escape, feeling hopeless, wanting things to be over, and/or idealizing the end;
- Sense: Getting a sense of numbness, anxiety, depression, sadness, ambivalence, weak, shame, exhaustion, and/or spacey-ness projected from someone;
- Life Situations: Knowing they experienced a traumatic life event such as abuse, death, divorce, assault, financial loss, stress, and/or rejection;
If you suspect any of the following, note these signs and proceed to step 2.
Step 2: A – Ask
The best way to confirm if someone is feeling suicidal is to ask them directly. To do this, word this concern using evidence from Step 1. For instance, an appropriate way to do so is, “I noticed you’ve been missing class and you seem more distressed than usual. I also saw you crying the other day, saying how you just wished everything would just end. Could you be talking about suicide?”
At the workshop, we practiced going around the room and asking one other if they were feeling suicidal. We all agreed it felt abnormally awkward, but it really shouldn’t be. What if we lived in a community where we were able to openly address mental health issues and suicidal thoughts?
Being pro-active and direct is so incredibly important. If they are feeling suicidal, affirming directly expresses to the person feeling suicidal that you are taking their behaviour and health seriously. If they are not, you can better adjust your support. Remember: asking someone if they are thinking about suicide will not give them the idea, which is a big fear/misconception some people have.
Step 3: L – Listen
If they have opened up to you about feeling suicidal, that means you have gained their trust. This is where active listening comes into play. Now is not the time to provide answers or pass judgement. Do not probe or point fingers. At this step, your role is to be an active listener. To confidently do this, really hone in and listen to what they have to say.
Validate their feelings and ask them if they feel comfortable sharing more with you. It’s not about “fixing them,” it’s about supporting them knowing they have all the answers they will need within. Often times, having a mood disorder and feeling suicidal is immensely isolating. By just being there for someone and just listening, you can alleviate a lot of distress they are experiencing.
Step 4: K – Keep Safe
After listening, the next step is to express your desire in wanting to help them help themselves. Because you’re not a professional, you want to connect this person with someone who is trained. Something along the lines of, “I am concerned and taking you very seriously. I don’t want to take a chance of losing you. I want to connect you with someone who can help you feel safe,” is sufficient. Remain with this person and continue to actively listen to them until you are able to connect them with someone who is able to take it from here.
There are plentiful of resources out there. If you, or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there is a way.
- Gerstein Crisis Crisis Line: 416-604-2337
- Distress Centre of Toronto: 416-408-4357
- Ryerson Security and Emergency Services: 416-979-5040, Dial 80 for emergencies from internal phones
- Ryerson Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education: 416-979-5000 ext. 3596
- Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling: 416-979-5195
Some interesting inforgraphics on University Campuses and Suicide Rates: http://www.collegedegreesearch.net/student-suicides/