Are you thinking of suicide?”
This is not a question anyone wants to ask, but it could be the one question that can help save a life, according to SafeTALK, a suicide alertness training program I attended last month.
As a journalist, I have written many stories about teen suicide and mental health issues; I’ve always considered it an important topic worthy of discussion and dissemination. So, when I heard about the SafeTALK training led by Rabbi Yarden Blumstein of Friendship House, I decided to attend, along with my daughter, Lily, on break from Washington University in St. Louis.
Both she and her brother, Ethan, a grad student at University of Michigan, have known people who have taken their lives in recent years, and I know other families whose lives have been touched by this tragedy. If there is a way to help stop our young people from leaving us too soon, I knew I wanted to be part of that solution.
The goal of SafeTALK is to develop a community of “alert helpers” — people of all ages who are trained to recognize the signs of suicide and lead the at-risk person to someone who can provide additional help. Suicide rates are rising, especially among young people and members of the LGBTQ community. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for people age 15-24, and the timing is ripe for programs that will create a suicide-safer community.
“Ninety-six percent of people who attempted suicide have tried to tell someone first,” said Blumstein, who has devoted himself to raising suicide awareness within the local community and across the country. He explained that many people miss the cues or do not act upon them because they feel unequipped to handle the situation.
SafeTALK emphasizes that one does not have to be a professional therapist to help, just a caring friend, neighbor or relative who is willing to take the time to listen and ask the right questions. It is a simple program that anyone can put into action.
“Wanting to die is different from not wanting to live,” Blumstein explained. “We have to meet these people in the middle.”
The TALK in SafeTALK is an acronym for the basic components of the program: Tell. Ask. Listen. Keep safe.
Tell. While most people provide cues, these messages are usually indirect. Listeners have to pay attention to the words they hear, the actions they see and the feelings they sense. Phrases such as “no one cares,” “it’s hopeless” or “there’s nothing anyone can do” indicate despair and a lack of hope that things can get better. Changes in behavior such as a drop in grades, a loss of interest in socializing, or increased drug and alcohol use are also signs of depression. A traumatic situation such as divorce or another suicide can also be a trigger.
“We have to notice the tell even if it’s indirect,” Blumstein said.
Ask. If you have recognized the signs, this is the time to ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” You can repeat the things the person has said to you, such as “When someone talks about feeling hopeless or not wanting help, this can mean they are thinking about suicide. Are you?”
Be direct. Blumstein says that, in most cases, a direct question will get an honest answer.
“People are afraid to cause damage. You will not cause depression by asking,” he said. “If you’re not sure, ask more questions.”
Listen. The research shows that most people want to talk about not wanting to live. They just need to know someone is listening. Once a person admits to thinking about suicide, let him know you want to continue the conversation. “Let’s talk about this.” “This is important.” “I am listening.” Depending on what is said, you may want to ask if he has thought about suicide in specific terms, whether he has a plan or a time frame.
Keep Safe. The program stresses this is not the time, nor are you the one, to solve the person’s problems. The only job of the “alert helper” is to connect the person as quickly as possible to someone who can help. It could be a therapist or Blumstein, who has handled dozens of interventions since he began the training, or a parent or other family member or a suicide prevention hotline such as Common Ground.
Blumstein, who has trained staff members at local Jewish summer camps and schools, has been asked to intervene with kids as young as 9. He says most people who participate in SafeTALK are surprised to find they have an opportunity to use the training within a relatively short time.
“I now feel more comfortable asking the uncomfortable questions,” said Jodi Backalar, a Farmington Hills resident who attends Washington University.
Blumstein said many local organizations are looking into SafeTALK training for the coming year.
“It’s helpful training; everyone should do it,” said Catie Quinn, program manager and camp director for Friendship Circle of Michigan. “It’s good to feel empowered, especially in situations that are so challenging.”
As for me, I have not had the chance to use the tools I learned in SafeTALK, but if anyone out there wants to talk, feel free to reach out. I am listening.
To learn about future training sessions, contact Rabbi Yarden Blumstein at (248) 788-7878 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suicide Prevention Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7)
Common Ground Resource and Crisis Center (24/7)
Rabbi Yarden Blumstein
Friendship Circle of Michigan