As a starting point, SafeTALK should be made mandatory for First Responders.
Last May, I had an op-ed article published in The Star where I talked about the need for training for teachers, paramedics, firefighters and other professionals on how to talk about suicide. We need tools, policies and protocols to help us deal with what is often described as the most challenging part of our job. We also need tools and policies to help make our workplaces safer.
Stigma, dialogue and knowledge.
How do we begin to talk about mental health and suicide if we have never been trained in how to do so or given ‘permission’ to do so? I believe that a significant crack in our mental health system is that we still cannot have an open dialogue on suicide and mental health because, in large part, we don’t know how to.
Training is a fundamental value and principal for all first responders. However, I challenge you to find a policy, protocol or training bulletin on suicide or mental illness in the field and in our workplace.
Stigma is our greatest challenge and dialogue is our greatest weapon. By creating a proactive dialogue (ie, training), we begin to get rid of stigma. Stigma does not occur on it’s own, it’s created by choosing not to talk about it because we are afraid to say the wrong thing or ‘make it worse.’ Stigma is ignorance. Stigma is fear. Stigma is silence.
SafeTALK is a three hour workshop that teaches participants to identify persons who might be having thoughts of suicide, keep them safe and connect them with intervention caregivers. As a safeTALK-trained suicide alert helper, you will be better able to;
– move beyond common tendencies to miss, dismiss or avoid suicide,
– identify people who have thoughts of suicide,
– apply the TALK steps (Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe) to connect a person with suicide thoughts to suicide first aid, intervention caregivers.
SafeTALK is a significant step toward breaking stigma. For many people, SafeTALK is the first time they have ever had an open conversation on suicide.
Please check out the LIvingWorks website for more information on SafeTALK. If you want to learn how to make SafeTALK a part of your organization’s core training, please send me an email and I will connect you to the right people.
Now many first responders are probably saying, “we don’t go to many calls where we deal with individuals who are having thoughts of suicide.” I agree. Reality is, we go to many calls when people have died by suicide. What we are most often faced with is the grieving families who are “left behind.” These are the ones that we can have a profound affect on. It is at this point where we become the greatest tool in breaking stigma and not only allowing, but inviting a dialogue on suicide. We can use the same tools that we learn in SafeTALK to link families to community resources that will help them through the greatest trauma of their life. By talking with the families, sometimes known as “survivors”, we initiate the dialogue and in doing so, we make it clear that it’s OK to talk about suicide. We may ask if they have family, clergy or friends that we can call. Perhaps they have no one that they can think of, this is when we take out our resources card that we received in our SafeTALK class and we link them to existing community resources such as crisis response teams, counselling services, etc. If we are unable to link to any appropriate resources, we offer to talk them to the hospital, after all they have just gone through the greatest trauma of their life. Here’s an example of resources in Thunder Bay. heresthedeal.ca
Here’s “A Guide for Early Responders Supporting Survivors Bereaved by Suicide.” Print it and perhaps this can be the next topic for your inservice training.
SafeTALK will also make our workplaces safer. In my workplace, and for most first responders, we are predominantly men. Men, 40-59 years old have the highest risk of suicide at 27/100,000 (2009, Canada). For comparison, the mortality rate for prostate cancer in 2011 in Canada was 19/100,000. Men, we need to start talking about our mental health and other issues like addiction that can lead to suicide. Workplace Health and Safety is a legislated initiative and it includes mandatory training in CPR, First Aid and WHIMIS for the purpose of keeping workers safe from injury or death. I believe that SafeTALK ought to be made mandatory wherever CPR, First Aid and WHIMIS are. If safety of workers is a priority, we need to include mental health.
Bill Wilkerson, Co-Founder Global Business and Economic Roundtable On Addiction and Mental Health, recently gave the keynote address at the Washington State Fire Chiefs and Washington State Council of Firefighters ‘NO SECRETS Labor-Management Symposium 2012’. Bill clearly outlines his vision and goals on addressing mental health in the workplace for Firefighters.
Recently, I came across Dr. Lisa Kitt’s PhD Thesis, “Breaking the Silence: Insights into the Impact of Being a Firefighter on Men’s Mental Health. As I read through Dr. Kitt’s thesis, it feels all too familiar. I encourage Firefighters to make the time to read through this and if nothing else, it is sure to elicit some unique and overdue coffee table talk.
In Canada, many provinces have adopted presumtive legislation because it has been proven that Firefighters are at a greater risk of many cancers due to the nature of our work. I suspect that when we break the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental illness with first responders, we will learn that we too are at a greater risk of mental illness and suicide due to the work that we do.
I believe SafeTALK ought to be mandatory for all First Responders for our work in the field and to make our workplaces safer and healthier. I believe that First Responders who are battling mental illness ought to be given the same respect, dignity and support as our brothers and sisters who are battling cancer. We have to start doing something.
Not talking about it isn’t working.