Building a safety network for suicide prevention
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Most of the people who sign up to be a suicide prevention advocate have a story, said Gail Smith, volunteer coordinator for Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide — REPS.
About five years ago, an acquaintance of Smith’s died by suicide.
“I just lost it,” Smith said. “It absolutely broke my heart. I was so upset over it. It really hit me hard.”
The woman wasn’t someone Smith knew very well, but she wondered what she could have done differently — if she could have invited her to do something or called her more often. Or if there was a sign she could have recognized or something she could have said that would have made a difference.
Around that time, Smith was looking for a new volunteer opportunity, and REPS was looking for a secretary. It was clear to Smith she needed to get involved in the organization.
After spending two years as secretary, Smith took the training to become a suicide prevention advocate.
In that role, Smith has certain days when she is on call to receive referrals either from Mindy Marriott, executive director of REPS, or the hospital.
With that referral, Smith becomes an advocate for someone who has attempted or is thinking about attempting suicide. Her primary role becomes connecting the person to resources, including therapy and group counseling. REPS provides funding for five free therapy sessions in the community.
And there are always other resources that can help, Smith said. For example, if she is advocating for someone who is dealing with an abusive relationship, substance abuse or financial problems, Smith will connect them to whatever community nonprofit or governmental service that can provide the right kind of assistance.
“It’s never just one thing that puts someone in a place to be suicidal,” she said.
Once they are in a safe place, Smith listens to the person’s story.
“Then I try and figure out where I can connect them with resources in the community that could help them and hopefully put them on a path where they can feel like they are not alone and not having to do this by themselves,” Smith said.
Smith has spent an entire night in the emergency department with someone to ensure they have support. However, she noted the hospital now has more resources in terms of social workers to immediately help suicidal patients. And COVID-19 has changed some of those policies. But the pandemic also has increased the need for a strong support system.
Smith noted the benefit of living in a town with numerous nonprofits, supported by a generous population.
“A lot of time people can feel so overwhelmed, they don’t know about all the resources that are available,” Smith said.
After Smith connects someone to resources, she follows up, reminds them about appointments and makes sure the counselor is a good fit.
“We keep in touch as much as they want us to,” Smith explained. “We have to respect their wishes. We figure out how we can help them given the boundaries they set for us.”
But Smith also has found people more willing to open up to her than to health care professionals or their family members.
“The fact we are volunteers means a lot,” she added.
The REPS phone number is not a 24-hour crisis line, but there are times Smith talks to someone who is worried about a friend or someone who is struggling, and she must make sure she keeps them on the line until they have help.
“This is not a volunteer job for the faint of heart,” Smith said. “You have to really want to do it.”
There’s a lot of emotion involved, she said, and it can take a toll on volunteers.
At the same time, Smith noted there are volunteers who really want to help and can go months and months without a referral. That’s, of course, a good thing, she said, but it makes it much more sporadic and unpredictable from the volunteer’s perspective.
Smith is on call once a week and sometimes goes for a long time without getting a call.
Currently, she said there are 11 advocates.
“We are always looking for more volunteers,” she said. Ideally, there would be one for every day of the month.
It is healing for her as well, Smith said, in feeling like she has an opportunity to help someone while they are still alive.
“It’s not sunshine and roses, but you can feel like you are really making an impact,” she said.
And there are many ways to get involved other than becoming an advocate.
Anyone can spend just 90 minutes going through the LivingWorks Start training, for which REPS will reimburse the cost.
The online suicide prevention training is designed to teach the skills to recognize when someone is having thoughts of suicide and the basic skills on how to keep them safe, said Jarrod Hindman, vice president of community development at the Colorado-based LivingWorks.
And the more people trained, the better.
“You can build a network of safety in a community,” he said.
Hindman said businesses often provide the training for their employees.
“The willingness to intervene is the hardest part,” Hindman said. The training “gives people the opportunity to practice being comfortable with asking the really hard question: Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
And the training teaches people what to do if the answer is “yes.”
“You don’t have to do it perfectly,” he said. “The most important thing is to listen, be empathetic and stay with someone to keep them safe.”
While not every suicide can be prevented, in many cases, it is preventable, Hindman said.
“Very often, someone who is suicidal has tunnel vision. They don’t think anyone cares what is going on,” he said.
And there’s data showing that if someone can intervene and make sure a suicidal person stays safe, they can be kept safe, Hindman said.
LivingWorks training takes only 90 minutes to complete.
“And you could actually learn how to save a person’s life,” Hindman said.
For people interested in volunteering or learning more about the training, Smith encourages reaching out to her or Marriott at REPS.
There are also opportunities to help with fundraising, serving on the board or helping out at special events. There is something for every level of commitment, Smith said.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-846-8182.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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