Today is Bell Let's Talk Day, part of Bell's charitable Let's Talk program dedicated to supporting mental health. If you're not familiar with the program, please check out their website. Bell and their partner organizations are doing impressive work to improve mental health services and to combat the pervasive stigmas around mental illness.
As many of you know, this is a cause near and dear to my heart. I have struggled with depression for most of my adult life and many other family members and friends have also been affected by mental illness. But mental health is something we should all be talking about, today and every day. As noted on the Bell Let's Talk website, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their life. That's a lot of us. That's a lot of people who need our understanding, kindness and support. Another fact: 2 in 3 people suffer in silence fearing judgment and rejection. This may not be surprising when you consider that only 49% of people say they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness (both facts from the Canadian Medical Association, via the Bell Let's Talk website). May I take a moment to say that you other 51% are missing out: we are awesome.
The fact that I want to bring the most attention to today, though, is this one: Approximately 11 people end their lives by suicide in Canada every day (Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention). 11 people EVERY DAY. These are people in our families. These are co-workers. These are our young adults. These are people we see in our community. These are people we don't see.
We need to do better. Fortunately, initiatives like Bell's Let's Talk program are calling attention to the importance of mental health first aid, training that is just as important as physical first aid. As noted in this article in The Washington Post, it is possibly more important. Given the statistics above, there is a pretty good chance that, at some point in your life, you will encounter someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis and needs your help.
So, when that happens, what will you do?
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in a suicide alertness training program called SafeTALK, created by LivingWorks. It was an excellent program and I want to encourage you all to look into taking it or something similar available in your area. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you don't think that you know anyone experiencing a mental illness, you won't need this training. The truth is that at any time, any of us could be the one person that that family member, that co-worker, that young adult, that person in our community, that stranger we don't know, invites into a conversation about their mental health concerns and possible suicidal thoughts.
This does not take the place of attending a full training program and I wish to make clear that I am not a representative of this program, but I would like to use this space to highlight a few of the key things I learned at the SafeTALK training as you may find them helpful. The TALK in the title is an acronym: Tell, Ask, Listen, KeepSafe.
Tell - A person with thoughts of suicide may make invitations to you (consciously or not) to speak about their concerns and suicidal thoughts. These invitations may be explicit or they may not be; often, they are not. You may get a sense that they are possibly having suicidal thoughts based on what you see (i.e. being moody or withdrawn), what you hear (i.e. talk of having no purpose or being a burden), what you sense (i.e. desperation or hopelessness), or what you learn about by speaking with them (i.e. that they are experiencing abuse or rejection).
Ask - The first step to helping someone is to ask about these invitations. SafeTALK recommends saying this: "When someone is [INVITATIONS], they are sometimes thinking about suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?" (For example, "When someone is missing work, worrying about things, and withdrawing from friends and family, they are sometimes thinking about suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?"). It is important to understand that you cannot plant the idea of suicide in someone's head, and the phrase "thinking about suicide" is preferable to "thinking about harming yourself" because it is clear and direct. Include the specific invitations that are leading you to ask them whether they are thinking about suicide.
Listen - If the person says that they are having thoughts of suicide, SafeTALK recommends replying as follows: "Let's talk about this. I am listening. This is important." Make it clear that you are available to listen to them and to help, and that their concerns and feelings are important. And then listen.
Importantly, if the person denies that they are having thoughts of suicide but your gut feeling is that they are in danger, move ahead to the next step anyways.
KeepSafe - If you yourself have not completed suicide intervention training (please note that this is a more advanced training program than suicide alertness training), then you need to get them connected with someone who has. Tell the person: "We need extra help. I want to connect you with someone who can help you KeepSafe." Then make that connection. Call your local suicide crisis centre or another identified community support, or someone you know who has completed suicide intervention training and would be available to help. Take them directly to a counselling centre or hospital. If you believe that the person is in immediate danger, call emergency services (in many locations, this would be 911). Stay with them until you have completed that connection.
(I wish to emphasize again that the advice listed above is not intended to take the place of attending a suicide alertness training program and it is not representative of the complete SafeTALK program.)
So, here are some next steps:
- Look into suicide alertness and suicide intervention training programs in your area. Yes, it will require taking some time out of your daily life to attend. Yes, some of the programs cost money. But if you help to save a life, I believe you'll think of it as time and money well spent. (It is possible too that your employer will help you with the time and cost, or perhaps you can encourage them to bring in training for your entire staff...look into it). Look it up now while you're on the Internet. LivingWorks, linked here and above, is an international organization and a good place to start, but if they are not offering training in your area, keep looking.
- Look up the KeepSafe connections in your community: those individuals, organizations, crisis lines and emergency services that are trained and available to provide proper suicide intervention and professional help. Compile a list of their contact information. Keep it handy. Don't put this off. Make time for this task this week. It is my understanding that in Canada, 911 is a nationwide emergency service and free to dial from any phone. Here is a link to find a crisis centre near you.
- Think about how you can help to support a suicide-safe community. Consider these 5 simple ways to help.
These are not easy conversations to have, and mental illness, and the stigma surrounding it, are not easy things to battle. However...
This is important.
This is so very important.