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.

The Star, May 28, 2012. “Scott Chisholm: Train teachers, paramedics to talk about suicide. Open dialogue crucial to removing the stigma of mental illness and help save lives.”

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.

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.

“FIREFIGHTERS may be at higher risk of committing suicide due to the psychological impact of the job, a university study has found” The Australian

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.

3 thoughts on “SafeTALK should be mandatory for First Responders.

  1. Hi Scott,
    I have just read this blog for the first time tonight and am thrilled that you mentioned Dr. Lisa Kitt’s dissertation. She was one of my professors at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and has been instrumental in guiding me through to becoming accepted to my masters program at UFV.
    You may or may not remember the information that I put in when I signed up on the Collateral Damage page, but I was a 911 Operator for 10yrs and suffer from chronic PTSD (among other things) due to my work. I am absolutely passionate about breaking the silence surrounding mental health and stress related injuries for First Responders, more specifically in 911 Operators. 911 Operators are the forgotten First Responder, the ones who try to talk that jumper down from the railing on the bridge before the police, ambulance and/or firefighters get there. They are also the ones who listen to them jump, scream on the way down and hit the water (because the human body will fall faster than a cell phone)…. I have recently written several pages describing calls that I took as a 911 Operator, many of which involve suicide and mental illness. If you would like to read them, please contact me via email.
    I am about to embark on original research for my masters, and am focusing on 911 Operators and PTSD… it will be the first of its kind in Canada. My ultimate goal is also to break the silence.

    • I struggle everyday with the loss of my son. He hung himself just over a year ago. Seems like it is not real, because I don’t want to let his memory leave me. My biggest fear is thinking that I will forget him. I know that’s impossible but it is still very real for me. His death is always on my mind. Don’t get me wrong, his life imprints my soul to live. I just wish his last day could of been a happy one. Did he know I loved him? Did he not feel loved? I’ve come to understand that all he felt was his darkness. Through that darkness all he felt was death. Please if you feel that way tell me. Tell someone….your life is worth the pain of tomorrow. I know that my heartache and sorrow is no comparison to what Braedan felt each day. Me…I have to get through this, me I live because his life was so important.His death has given my life reason, as strange as it sounds. I will stand up for Suicide Awareness…..I will not be silent in his death. If you hurt or carry a heavy burden…..its in you to live.xxoo

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