By Brandon Martin
A month-long campaign to promote suicide awareness and prevention has ended, but for some the cause isn’t limited to just one month a year.
Jonathan Smith, a project coordinator for Mental Health Awareness Training at Piedmont Community Services (PCS), works every day to raise awareness throughout Patrick, Henry and Franklin counties, as well as the City of Martinsville.
Since joining PCS in June, Smith has been responsible for leading core group trainers who will provide Mental Health First Aid, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and SafeTalk training to various groups including school personnel, social workers, families of active duty military and veterans, first responders, college students and the general public.
Due to the coronavirus, Smith said that the need for individual mental health skill building has “become huge. During the pandemic, I feel like it’s had a huge toll on people for mental health. Just from my perspective of dealing with the public on a day-to-day basis, I’ve seen so many worried and concerned because of all of the uncertainty.”
Smith said outside organizations “that don’t necessarily work in the same field as I do” can come together to focus on the cause.
“When you start bringing in organizations that aren’t normally involved, it draws in a whole new perspective from another crowd,” he said.
By widening the net, more people are equipped to recognize if a loved one is having a mental health crisis, Smith said.
The biggest warning sign is isolation, he added.
“Someone suddenly parting with their valuable belongings, mood swings, reckless behavior” and drug use were among other indicators listed by Smith.
From his own experience, “people saying goodbye to people as if they won’t ever be seen again” is “a key giveaway. It’s different from ‘goodbye and see you tomorrow,’” Smith said. “It’s more of a sentimental goodbye. At first you don’t realize but then you realize it was a ‘goodbye, I’m never going to see you again’ goodbye.”
Regina Clark, prevention administrator for PCS, said the “distorted thinking” that leads to suicide is often accompanied by a mental health disorder.
“Often depression goes hand-and-hand with suicide,” she said. “Sometimes it is a red flag if someone has been going through depression and there is a sudden boost in energy and their self-esteem.”
Clark said this boost is due to the person feeling “a sense of relief” by their decision to commit suicide.
“To them, they think ‘I have a plan. I’m good. I’m okay. That burden is off me. That anxiety is off me,’” she said.
According to Clark, the signs are subtle and “hard to pick up on” but there are ways for community members to prepare for the situation.
“One thing I like to stress to people are the classes that we offer,” Smith said. “One is the Mental Health First Aid.”
The class is an 8-hour workshop that teaches ways to recognize suicidal thoughts and the proper responses to them, Smith said.
“There are two primary modules–the adult and the youth,” Smith said. “The adult offers different curriculums including general adult, veterans, higher education, fire and emergency services.”
He added that the courses are “essentially the same” but with different context appropriate to the individual groups.
While the course doesn’t teach students how to diagnose mental health problems, Smith said it helps “start the initial steps” necessary to mend a crisis.
“It’s just like CPR, but for mental health,” he said. “It’s the basic steps to help save a life.”
“We aren’t going to ask someone to do open heart surgery on someone who has had a heart attack,” Clark said. “But if they can keep them alive until the paramedic gets there then that’s our goal.”
During the fall, Clark said that a shorter, 4-hour version of the training will also be provided. She said “families, organizations, church groups, or anybody” can now receive the training due to the increase in virtual capabilities. To have the classes, Clark said at least five participants are needed.
Classes like ASIST and SafeTalk also are available.
ASIST is a 2-day training for suicide prevention. It is an evidence based, face to face workshop taught by two Living Works certified trainers. The workshop helps prevent suicide by teaching participants to recognize signs, provide a skilled intervention, and develop a safety plan to keep someone safe. The workshop features audiovisuals, discussions, and simulations.
SafeTalk is a 4-hour training that provides community members with skills needed to address suicide risk. The workshop helps prevent suicide by teaching participants to recognize when someone is thinking about suicide and connect them to an intervention provider. SafeTalk participants learn how to prevent suicide by recognizing signs, engaging someone, and connecting them to an intervention resource for further support. The workshop includes presentation, audiovisuals, and skills practice.
“We have a lot of options for folks,” Clark said. “It’s mostly based on what they need, and we can customize.”
Once training to recognize signs of suicide has been completed, Smith said the next step is implementing a strategy called ALGEE — Assess, Listen, Give, Encourage (professional help), Encourage (self-help) – is used to help get the person professional help.
After assessing risk, Smith said “listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help. You want to provide information, but you don’t want to be false with the information. The last thing you want to do is lose their trust because it just intensifies the situation.”
For more information, contact PCS at (276) 694-4361.