Safe TALK a lifesaver

There are times that we feel alone, hopeless, burdensome, desperate, and/or numb. Luckily for most of us, we have someone to turn to, to talk to, to get us through those dark moments. Unfortunately, some people don't feel that they can reach out to their friends and family. Or perhaps they've tried and the people close to them aren't hearing them, or don't know what to do to help. Luckily there is the safe TALK program, through which I recently became one of more than 1,000 people locally who has received suicide alertness training. Here's what I learned:

The hope of the training is that people thinking about suicide will cross paths with people who can and will listen, who won't "miss," "dismiss," nor "avoid" talking about suicide, and will get them help.

The suicide alertness training program reminds us that most peoples' lives have been touched directly or indirectly by suicide or suicide attempts and that the subject should not be taboo. We were reminded that: "Asking directly about suicide will not give someone the idea."

Offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA), I was impressed with the simplicity of the message and the ability that safe TALK has to change lives, and prevent suicides. The program's name, safe TALK, is an acronym which succinctly describes its purpose and key message: Suicide Alertness For Everyone; Tell, Ask, Listen, Keep safe.

No, you aren't trained to be a counsellor. No, you don't have to learn to convince someone not to kill themselves. The point is to realize that most people who think about suicide want to live, and that they are looking for a glimmer of hope to hold onto. One person asking some direct questions can be that glimmer.

People have different ways of "telling" others that they are having thoughts of suicide, and the program focuses on looking at changes in behaviour, things people may say, or life situations they may have just experienced.

If you think someone may be trying to tell you they are having thoughts of suicide, the next step is to ask them, specifically and clearly, if that is what they are communicating, based on what you've heard or witnessed.

Whether they say yes, or no, it's time to listen and probe further. It's not about having the magic words to take their hurt and pain away, it's about letting someone release their thoughts. The important reminder here is to continue to be direct, while being sensitive, caring, calm, patient, and non-judgemental.

Keep safe is the final step. Once someone has admitted to thoughts of suicide, you need to get them to campus or community resources. You've started the conversation, but let the professionals take it from here. Where's here? Help may be bringing them to the hospital emergency department, or getting them to a school counsellor, to their family doctor, or calling a crisis worker, such as through the mental health hotline at 1-866-531-2600 or the Student helpline (good 2 talk) at 1866-925-5454.

As suicide is the second leading cause of death in youths, we can't ignore suicidal talk. Anyone, almost any age could have thoughts of suicide. We should never assume someone is "just being dramatic" or "trying to get attention."

Locally, according to my trainer Lisa, safe TALK is making strong inroads. Sault College was the first school to implement "Talk Today," which is geared towards student athletes and the pressures they face, and incorporates the safeTALK program. Talk Today began thanks to the Ontario Hockey League working with the CMHA, created after Saginaw Spirit player Terry Trafford died by suicide. (Note that I didn't say committed suicide… I learned that "committed" should be reserved for crimes).

Algoma University is also about to become the first University to launch the program. The idea is that by training all of the coaches and athletes in safe TALK, they will be able to support their peers, since most times, students talk to their friends first, and may be far from their families.

I am safe TALK trained and proud to say that I am willing to be helpfully nosy (as the instructor said), especially if it may save a life.


Nadine Robinson's column appears every second Wednesday. She can be reached at 

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