Providing first level support to a person at risk of suicide – what can frontline staff do if they find themselves one on one with person talking about suicide?
It is one of the most challenging situations a member of staff can find themselves in. One moment they are going about their job, the next a member of the public calls their attention to someone behaving unusually in a potentially dangerous situation and they find themselves talking to a person with suicidal feelings.
Many organisations that employ staff in roles where this type of situation is a real possibility have invested in training. Staff don’t need days of training to act as counsellors or therapists. They need to be able to provide some first level support before further help arrives. That’s why the sessions I’ve designed and run in this area focus on some simple techniques that are fairly easy to remember and put into practice.
So what type of approach is helpful for frontline staff in a situation like this?
Listen and show that you are listening at every opportunity
Every moment spent listening to a person at risk of suicide increases the chances of making a successful intervention. The only goal is to listen and, through our responses, actively demonstrate that we are listening. When a person reaches the point where they are thinking of ending their own life they will often feel that there is nothing to live for and that no one cares. When we are listening actively to someone we respond in a way that explicitly shows ‘I heard what you said, I care and I want to know more.’ In a sense this response is challenging the persons negative perception of the world and the people around them. Listening in this way is very powerful and is often described as Active Listening.
Acknowledge the circumstances and feelings
Be prepared to summarise back to the person things they have shared about their circumstances and feelings. Eg So, things have got much worse since your mum hit you and you don’t feel you can face going back to school because of the bullying – is that right? A good listener might pick up on aspects of the relationship with the mother or explore the bullying further - Tell me a bit more about the bullying / your relationship with your mum”
We can acknowledge feelings by saying what we see and hear: “I can see how upset you are”, “I can hear the anger in your voice”.
Continue to offer support and understanding
Once you have acknowledged the circumstances and feelings by actively listening emphasise that you’d like to continue the conversation. If the other person is in a potentially dangerous situation ask them if they would like to continue talking in a place of greater safety but be prepared to accept their decision to stay where they are. Continue to listen actively until you are in a position to hand over the contact to the emergency services.
The biggest concern I hear from staff is a fear of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse. A few of the ‘don’ts’ in a difficult situation like this include:
- Don’t offer reassurances that things will get better or are not that bad. Although well meant, responses like this trivialise the person’s feelings and show that we aren’t really listening.
- Don’t tell someone you know how they feel – even if you have felt suicidal yourself in the past, you only know how you felt. It’s often better to say ‘I can’t imagine how that must feel’.
- Don’t try to solve the problem or come up with lots of possible suggestions. It isn’t helpful to burden someone who feels suicidal with a volley of suggestions or solutions, none of which they may feel able to cope with or follow through. Also if we are focusing our energy on generating solutions we are unlikely to be listening as effectively as we could.
- Don’t try to minimize a person’s problems by comparing them to those of others. When someone has reached the point where they are thinking of ending their life things as bad as they possibly could be.
Above all it’s important for staff to remember they are not responsible for another person’s actions. Many interventions of this nature are successful but not all are. Encourage staff involved in situations like this to talk about what happened with their manager or colleagues and make use of any professional support that is available.
Interested in finding out more about our training courses on responding to customers or service users who are distressed or suicidal? Call us or email us today to discuss your training needs further.