My turn: Train yourself to talk to someone thinking of suicide

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

All over Southeast Alaska there have been tragedies in the news in the last few years. Some of these were preventable, and some of these deaths were just a normal part of human existence. As "normal" as death is - both the preventable and the non-preventable - most of us are unprepared.

In Juneau we have many opportunities to take first aid classes to teach us what to do in the first few minutes after an accident, heart attack, or similar emergency. We have classes and other kinds of systems to ensure safe boating, for example. Collectively, we don't spend much effort getting ready for what happens when medical intervention is not successful. Similarly, we don't know much about how to prevent many kinds of non-accidental deaths.

Wednesday, Dr. Bob Baugher came to Juneau to speak about suicide intervention and coping with suicide loss. I was in the audience. Although I am not a health care professional, and no one in my family has committed suicide, I was interested in this presentation because of recent deaths in Juneau and an article that the Empire ran in January ("State youth drinking lass, toking more") with the following shocking statistics: In 2009, 8.5 percent of traditional students in Juneau and 11.3 percent of alternative students reported attempting suicide in the last 12 months.

Baugher talked extensively about suicidal thoughts and how they may manifest themselves in a person's actions or statements. He talked about withdrawal from friends and family or going to the doctor with vague physical complaints. Obviously, not everyone that has these signs is even thinking about suicide, but some are.

Statements such as "I just can't take it anymore," or "I won't be around to see this project completed," might just be figures of speech, or they could be signs of suicidal thinking.

That is why if you recognize a friend or family member is very depressed and might be showing signs of being suicidal, you need to be very direct. You need to ask questions like, "Are you thinking of suicide?" By asking this question directly, you will be able to give the person a chance to really talk. You need to be prepared to ask, "What method of killing yourself are you thinking of using?" and "Have you ever tried to kill yourself before?" And you need to be prepared to ask the most important question: "Who else can we call that can help you through this?"

I can't recap even a small fraction of the important points that Baugher made, but many of the things he said I had not heard before. I was struck by how many times over the years I have been taught certain first-aid concepts, and for that matter, how many times I have had CPR training, but this was the first time I had heard anyone give simple, practical training in what to do when facing a friend or loved one that might be considering suicide.

The opportunity to hear Baugher's talk has passed (Editor's note: Baugher's presentation will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. today and 11 a.m. Monday on GCI Channel 15), but even with the fairly modest turnout this training could have a big effect in Juneau over the next few years.

On Oct. 1st, Dr. Ken Doka, a clinical psychologist and a noted expert on grief, specifically in children and teens is coming to Juneau to offer advice about how to help children and teenagers make sense of death and grief. I am going to be there to hear what he has to say because I have two grandchildren in high school in Juneau and I want to be ready.

If you have taken the time to get CPR and first aid training, doesn't it make sense to devote a fraction of the effort involved to get some help to realistically understand how to help your family and friends face grief and to be prepared to help others understand what death really means? Talk frankly with your doctor about the end of your life. Talk directly to your friends and family about the value of life and how to prepare for death. Prepare a living will. Prepare yourself for what you would say to a friend that might be thinking about ending his or her life. Also, take advantage of some of the training and speakers like Baugher and Doka that will be coming to Juneau in the future. Most importantly, take care of those you love.

• Palmer is a Juneau resident.

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