Suicide Prevention and Intervention

By Elizabeth Myers

Have you ever known anyone who was contemplated suicide? Attempted suicide? Maybe even succeeded in committing suicide? Chances are you have, whether you know it or not. I have. This is why last month, I attended a suicide intervention training called ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). The training was sponsored by the Eagle River Youth Coalition as part of the overall of the effort of Suicide Prevention Coalition which works to inform all of us about the problem of suicide in this valley and what we can do about it. First, let me qualify that although I run a counseling center, I am not myself a counselor, so I went to this program as a lay person who wanted to know what to do in my day-to-day life when I encounter someone who may be thinking about taking his/her own life. People from all walks of life attended this 2-day training counselors, community leaders, pastors, EMTs, lay persons. All of us walked away with knowledge and the self-confidence that we had the tools to intervene if called to do so.

The ASIST training breaks the intervention into 3 phases: Connecting, Understanding and Assisting.

When we connect with a suicidal person, we do not shy away from the question of are you thinking of taking your own life? The person will either say yes or no. The straight-forward question will usually get you a straight-forward answer. And that answer will tell you how to proceed. Remember, you may have a problem with suicide in general, but the person you are talking to is likely already there. He will feel a level of relief that there is now someone who knows that he is thinking. This also opens the door to talk openly about suicide. So don't shy away from the question.

The second phase is understanding where the person is at. This means listening to the reasons a person has for wanting to die. It means asking if he has a current suicide plan (sometimes, this is obvious). It means asking if he has attempted suicide in the past. It means asking if he has received mental health care in the past. It means asking if he is in unbearable pain. It is important at this point to validate what the person is feeling and not to say: you should not be feeling this way, things are not hopeless etc. As you are getting this person to talk to you, you also begin exploring why this person may want to live. Reasons may be external or internal. Is it an unfulfilled hope or dream? Is it a child? A pet? A parent? A friend? The best way that I understand this is to think that this individual has 2 sides, a person who wants to live and a person who wants to die. The person who wants to die is trying to kill the person who is trying to live. So as you are trying to understand this person, you are validating the feeling of the person who wants to die, and then you are trying to find the person who wants to live, and in essence you are giving this person voice to be heard.

Once you discover the part of the person that wants to live, you can assist him in staying alive. What does that mean? You can develop a safety plan, promise me that if you feel this way, you will call such and such a person (friend, family member, pastor, therapist). Promise me that you will not take drugs/alcohol/etc. If you know how the person is planning to commit suicide, disable that plan. Link the person up to resources that can help him. In essence, at this point you are in relationship with the person at risk, which it itself implies a level of trust. You are therefore helping him seek out and find other relationships that can assist him in staying alive. These are friends, family, an area pastor or an experienced therapist. Counselors at the Samaritan Counseling Center will always find the time to work with a person in crisis.

If this sounds complicated, it really is not. The best part of the ASIST training is the amount of role playing we were able to do. We did this with the instructors and with each other. Through role playing, we not only encountered many different kinds of situations and people, but we were also able to formulate our own sets of words for our questions and responses. The theory of suicide intervention became internalized in real-life experience, and so will not be forgotten.