By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
Thirty-nine faculty and staff members from AVTEC-Alaska’s Institute of Technology, and three others from SeaView Community Services and the Seward Boys & Girls Club attended a QPR Gatekeeper Training suicide prevention training at AVTEC last week during in-services. The class was provided by the UAA Center for Human Development’s Training Coordinator Eric Boyer, using instructions designed by suicide prevention expert Paul Quinnett. It had been planned a while ago, but came at a time of increased awareness about the issue of suicide in Seward following the recent death of two young teens in January.
The training used an approach called QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer). QPR is intended to teach those who are in a position to recognize the warning signs, clues and suicidal communications of people in trouble to act vigorously to prevent a possible tragedy—in much the same way as those with skills in CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver are trained to act to save lives.
It describes many of the typical warning signs that people who are depressed or those who might be contemplating suicide display, and suggests ways of engaging a person in conversation to learn their intentions. It then offers ways to persuade them to get help, and how to refer the person to an appropriate resource.
Asking someone if they are considering suicide will not increase the chances that they will do it, Boyer said. Rather, it does just the opposite. It often relieves them, knowing that someone cares enough to ask, and offers them a helping hand when they may not see another way out.
Teachers sometimes are concerned about their own responsibility, and fear that if they become involved, they could be held responsible if the student subsequently kills themselves, Boyer said. But since the Good Samaritan Act was enacted in 1985, there have not been any court cases nor litigation against a single teacher who noticed something going on, and asked the student if they were planning to kill themselves. There have however been high profile legal cases brought against teachers who noticed the warning signs but did nothing.
“The opportunity to cover material about suicide warning signs, and what do to in the event of noticing these signs became even more meaningful and applicable given the tragic events of the past six weeks, and she was grateful that the training was already in place,” said Micheley Svabik, the AVTEC counselor who arranged it. The staff appeared engaged, and had applicable questions at the end of the presentation, but many also wished that they had had more time. Boyer agreed going in that longer trainings are usually better as they enable participants to delve into the issue more deeply, and they give students the chance to practice those challenging, potentially lifesaving conversations.
“It’s my opinion that, at a minimum, this kind of training sheds on light on how to handle a situation with someone you’re worried about,” Svabik said. “As AVTEC staff, as well as community members, we need to talk about what to do in that situation, and provide examples of how to handle it, so that people feel less intimidated by having that conversation.” “While 45 minutes of training may be just a start, I think it can be very useful in providing direction so people have basic understanding of what they can do or say, while also providing material to refer back to in the future.”
Another free QPR Gatekeeper training may be offered in March to AVTEC students, and could be opened to others in the community, Boyer said. His organization conducts research-based trainings to a variety of groups and agencies across Alaska, he said. All that the groups have to do is recognize a need, and invite them. UAA Center for Human Development also provides a class on Mental Health Mental First Aid. It’s geared to increase public awareness that mental health illnesses are normal, and shouldn’t be taboo in society, or treated any differently than those with physical challenges or illness. It emphasizes that those experiencing a mental health condition shouldn’t be afraid to tell others how they’re feeling and ask for help.
Trainings can make a huge difference, said Deb Bond, the director of Seward Boys & Girls Club who lost her son Jeff, at age 16, to suicide seventeen years ago. Had their son Jeff had an adult who he trusted to help him work out his problems, he might be alive today, she said. Bond is regularly called out to visit with grieving family members who have recently lost a child or husband to suicide. She is pleased to be able to offer a sympathetic ear, and to share what she has learned if they ask.
Since her son’s death, Bond has worked as a Gatekeeper, and has served as a regional board member of the Suicide Prevention Council and Alaska Suicide Prevention Coalition. She used to provide suicide prevention trainings for Seward school teachers, and spoke at health classes at the high school. Bond also helped establish the state-mandated requirement that all teachers and classified staff receive two hours of suicide prevention training per year, which was enacted in 2002.
Ninety- percent of those who commit suicide suffer from anxiety, depression, or other kinds of mental health issues, Boyer said. Often their conditions are un-diagnosed. Many can be helped with different forms of therapy or drugs, or even just individuals who care about them such as mentors, teachers, trusted pastors, or friends. That’s why suicide is considered one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in America today.
A primary human need is to feel and be connected, either to other people, to things, responsibilities, jobs, or goals that one wants to achieve, Boyer said. Research shows that those who aren’t connected, people who are new to a community, who are socially isolated from others, older men who are recently retired from their jobs, or have lost a spouse, are among those at highest risk for suicide.
Warning signs can be that they talk about being burden to others, they start disconnecting from their friends, family, hobbies, or begin giving away their possessions. They may become sleepless, show changes in behavior, may purchase a weapon, change their will, donate their organs, or turn to drugs or alcohol.
Young people in particular are at risk, especially those suffering from depression or a mental illness who feel isolated from others, are bullied, or lose a girlfriend or boyfriend, said Craig Williams, a psychologist at SeaView Community Services. Their younger brains are still literally under construction until age 22, they’re still learning about the world around them, and their coping mechanisms tend to be more limited than adults, who reason things out more carefully and tend to see the bigger picture. Younger people also are high risk takers, more inclined to act on impulse.
The recent tragedies helped bring together many resources in the Seward community, including educators, parents, ministers, social service agencies, police and teen youth center to help plan a more coordinated community response to suicide prevention, Williams said. No one agency can solve the problem, but the more individuals that are working on it, and the more people that can receive the trainings the better, he said.
More than 25 percent of Alaskan youth reported feeling hopelessness and sadness for a constant period of greater during the previous year, (possible signs indicating the beginning of clinical depression), and almost one out of seven seriously considered suicide, according to a Youth Risk Behavioral Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2007-2008. One out of every 12 Alaskan respondents attempted suicide.
Here on the Kenai Peninsula, 66 residents took their lives between 2007 -2011, including 49 males and 17 females. In Alaska, 761 residents took their lives over the same period, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Yet suicide rates among all age groups generally are remaining fairly steady in Alaska, except for a slight uptick over the last 5 -7 years, which he believes may be associated with the state’s veterans, said James Gallanos, Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Behavioral Health.
Those who respond to calls on Alaska Careline, the state’s 24-hour crisis hotline, receive 120 hours of training, and might spend 45 minutes on the phone with a caller, Boyer said. Meanwhile, there’s also a crisis text line also available, meeting the needs of those who may feel more comfortable communicating that way. They sometimes will continue text conversations for 4-6 hours at a time.
SeaView Community Center’s 24-hour Crisis Line is 244-3027
Careline, Alaska’s statewide suicide prevention hotline is 877-266-HELP (4357), text 4help to 839863 Tuesdays-Saturdays 3-11 p.m.