NAIT executive shares tips on lowering the risk of suicide

Watch for signs, address the matter directly, lead people to help

Often, just showing that you’ll talk about suicide intervention is enough to open the door for someone needing help.

gerard hayes, nait vice president students and campus lifeGerard Hayes, NAIT vice-president of students and campus life, saw that happen when he worked at another post-secondary institute.

Years ago, he was an assistant director of student residences, and also certified to train staff members in recognizing and addressing suicide warning signs. Among those staff was an aerobics instructor who chose to cancel a class and attend the training.

He happened to tell the students why the cancellation was happening.

“When he goes back to his classes, a student comes up and says, ‘I want to hear more about this suicide workshop,’” recalls Hayes. She wanted to know more because she’d been thinking of ending her life. The instructor got her help.

“Just mentioning that he did the workshop gave permission for that conversation.”

The need for that conversation continues. Across Canada, 4,500 people die by suicide every year. That’s why Hayes shares his knowledge and experience with staff and students in his role at NAIT today. Here are tips that anyone can use to encourage others to share their thoughts and feelings, and get the help they need.

Eliminate the stigma

distraught man sitting in a tunnel

There’s a long history of stigma around suicide, Hayes points out. Obituaries for victims of suicide once tended toward the term “accidental death.” Until the 1980s, he adds, the Catholic Church would not bury them in their cemetaries. “That stigma, that taboo, is as prevalent today as it was back then,” says Hayes.

That may be particularly relevant in Alberta, which after Nunavut and Saskatchewan, has Canada’s third highest rate of death by suicide, particularly among men, according to data from the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

“People with thoughts of suicide, because of the stigma, are not able to talk to you about it,” says Hayes. “Some of them are in so much pain they don’t know how to express the seriousness of what’s going on with them.”

Watch for signs

man looking sadly at photograph

Even if people aren’t able to say what they’re feeling, chances are they’re showing it. “The big thing is change,” says Hayes. That is, changes in

  • situations, such as a recent divorce or loss or a loved one
  • behaviour, for example, withdrawing or recklessness
  • feelings of sadness, anger or worthlessness
  • thoughts of escape, guilt or hopelessness
  • physical changes, such as a lack of interest in appearance

Be direct

woman being comforted by friend

If Hayes noticed that a friend had suddenly lost a lot of weight, for example, he’d ask about it. While he knows that some might worry about making things worse, or feel it’s not their place to pry, “you have to put that aside if you really want to help,” he says.

“You have to ask straight up. If you don’t, they’re not going to be comfortable talking to you about it.”

Lead them to help

man at counselling

“I’m not a counsellor,” Hayes stresses. Like many of us, he doesn’t have the training required to help someone work through suicidal thoughts. But, he says, “I’m committed to getting them help – there are people out there to talk to.”

911 is one immediate resource, as is the nearest hospital emergency department. There are also a variety of help and distress lines available. In any case, insist that a person get assistance, says Hayes, and “be firm about your intentions to get help for them if they won’t.​”

This step alone can change the course of a situation. “Believe it or not, once we get that issue of suicide on the table, it lowers the risk tremendously just because you’ve talked about it,” says Hayes. “It’s not going to work 100% of the time but in almost all cases it does.”

Follow up as you see fit

man sitting cross legged and bare foot on a couch talking on a cellphone

Your involvement after connecting a person with help “will depend on you,” says Hayes, “and on how much you want to put into it.”

When helping a friend or family member, you’re likely to be there throughout the healing process, he points out, but dealing with an acquaintance may differ.

Hayes knows of one case in which a person asked another colleague to deal with a situation from its start, and stepped aside entirely. As far as Hayes is concerned, that’s OK. The important thing, he points out, is that the person provided some kind of connection.

“Getting help in whatever form you can is helpful,” says Hayes. “If we’re able to intervene, the risk of suicide is lower.”

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