A new suicide prevention training programme, developed in the UK, has been adapted for Irish users and offers free training for loved ones on breaking the stigma, identifying when someone is at risk and directing them to help
One of the lingering misconceptions around suicide is that if you mention the word ‘suicide’ to someone you think may be having suicidal thoughts, it will prompt them to do it. That the very mention of it will tip them over the edge and it will be your fault. This is not the case.
Using the word suicide does not induce suicide. It’s a myth — an understandable one, born of fear and concern and not knowing what to do around someone you think may be in that despairing headspace, but it’s a myth nevertheless.
Instead, bringing the word into the open may provide a space for the person experiencing suicidal thoughts to talk about how they are feeling, which may in turn help dissipate their sense of despair and isolation.
By hearing the word ‘suicide’ said out loud by another person, the weight and darkness of secret suicidal thoughts can be lightened; it really is the opposite of ‘don’t mention the war’. Do mention it. Shine a massive light on it. Give it nowhere to hide.
But what if you’re an ordinary person with no experience of such things, don’t you need to be a counsellor or a psychiatric nurse to have this kind of conversation? What do you do if you’re not? Make a phone call on their behalf, try to get them an appointment, hope your suicidal friend, colleague or loved one will talk to someone — anyone — so long as it’s not you? How can you possibly be of any use when you don’t know what to do or say?
Help is at hand — quite literally, it’s in your hand. In your phone, your tablet, your laptop, thanks to an initiative from an Irish organisation called Ohana — Hawaiian for extended family — which offers a short, specific online training session on how to start a conversation, ask the appropriate questions, and get the person the help they need. The interactive training session, developed by the UK’s Zero Suicide Alliance, takes 20-40 minutes to complete online.
And because Ohana wants to reach as many people as possible, this training is offered free and confidential. You don’t need to enter any personal details other than your age and post code. You just log onto to their website ohana.ie and there it is.
Ohana are a group of ordinary Irish people of varying backgrounds and age groups who want to educate and empower us when it comes to a subject we are often too scared to talk openly about, yet which is both avoidable and preventable, as anyone who has been bereaved by suicide knows, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. They urge us to ‘show you care, ask the questions, make the call’.
We all know about suicide. Each death is estimated to impact an average of 20 people as it ripples outward, with twice as many men dying through suicide as women. The most vulnerable demographic are men under the age of 50. Globally, someone kills themselves every 40 seconds — that’s around 800,000 people a year — with higher incidences, according to research from the Samaritans, in areas of socio-economic deprivation.
This does not mean that it only happens to those overwhelmed by poverty and lack of opportunity. Suicide can happen to anyone, anywhere, and does not discriminate. It cuts through talent, wealth, acclaim, success, beauty: think Alexander McQueen, Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Isabella Blow, Hunter S Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf. Depression is usually the main cause. Untreated depression was the cause of death of my former husband when our kids were in kindergarten.
I had no idea he was suicidal until it was too late. At no point did I or anyone else around him ask him directly if he had been feeling suicidal. He just seemed a bit distant, until he distanced himself irrevocably.
“It’s far too common,” says Su Carty, a member of the Irish Rugby Football Union committee who re-registered as a psychiatric nurse at the beginning of the pandemic. She is now a spokesperson for Ohana, having directly helped an older person who had been thinking about killing themselves rather than being a “burden” to their loved ones. They were in a bad way, remembers Carty, but thanks to some direct intervention and the right questions at the right time, they were given access to the help they needed and survived.
“We’re still awkward about talking about it,” she says. “We’re afraid if we talk about it, we will make the person worse. We are, in my opinion, definitely better in terms of acceptance of mental health issues — stress etc — but we are still fearful and uncomfortable when it comes to suicide. This is not because of a lack of caring. It’s down to fear.”
In terms of stigma, we have come a long way, Carty says, but believes “there’s still a long way to go”.
“We want to give people a place to start a conversation,” she says.
It is not, however, about “turning people into health professionals”. It’s about making the connection between the person who may be suicidal and the professional help that they need. “If someone breaks their leg, you take them to A&E,” says Carty. “You don’t try to fix their leg yourself.”
The main thing, she says, is starting the conversation, in a gentle and loving way. This is where the online training comes in.
Everyone, the Zero Suicide Alliance and Ohana believes, should have basic training in how to directly and unambiguously approach someone who may be thinking about ending their lives — the same kind of training ordinary people can undergo to help those in other emergencies like choking, drowning, or stroke.
Psychological triage, until the suicidal person can access professional care — the aim of the online course is to practice handling difficult situations of which you may have little or no experience, but where your intervention could make a difference. It might be awkward, but your concern could even be life-saving.
Obviously you would need to frame the subject slightly differently depending on the level of intimacy you have with the person you are concerned about — broaching suicide with a stranger differs from with a colleague, a partner, a family member or a friend — but the crux of it remains the same: be direct.
It’s better to ask “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” than “how are you?” The ‘how are you’ approach can be shut down with ‘fine’. And clearly, someone who may be suicidal is very far from fine. My late husband was always fine. It was his favourite self description.
Before you start the conversation, be prepared. Have details of help at hand, be prepared to accompany the person to where they may need to go. They may urgently need a lift to a doctor, hospital or another crisis centre. The online training offers three imagined scenarios — talking with a co-worker, a stranger and a family member, and what to do if you are worried that they may be in imminent danger.
From the taxi driver taking a stranger to A&E to the father worried about his son and the worker concerned about their colleague, simple conversations are played out, with an online coach to answer extra questions. It’s simple, clear, and incredibly useful.
One Ohana representative, Angela, shares a real life testimony about how her partner Mark killed himself. Like my own former husband, he was one of the two-thirds of people who are not in contact with any mental health services before they die.
“We didn’t see any warning signs,” she says. “I do wish everything I know now, I’d known then.” As a man under the age of 50, she was unaware he was in the highest risk group.
Had she known more about suicide, she says she would have asked him directly if he was feeling suicidal and considering ending his life. She was the last person to talk to him before he died, and urges us to gain the knowledge, skills and confidence she wishes she had before his death.
As part of the Ohana initiative, she believes we all need to encourage people to talk about their feelings and acknowledge they may be struggling, no matter how uncomfortable such conversations can make us feel.
Ohana urges anyone concerned to do three things: identify signs that someone may be suicidal, employ the correct language in asking the appropriate questions, and direct that person to the appropriate help. They sum it up like this: “Show you care, ask the question, make the call.”
Check out ohana.ie
Other useful helplines
Samaritans 116 123 or email email@example.com
Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (suicide, self-harm)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)