SafeTALK teaches skills to help those at risk of suicide

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By Sandy Barnes

“No love at all is a scared young girl

standing on the bridge on the edge of the world.
And it's a pretty short fall.”

— Willie Nelson

Caring enough to question someone about thoughts of suicide could help prevent a tragedy, said Lori Hoffner, a trainer for safeTALK, a suicide intervention program.

Asking the question “Are you thinking about suicide?” is an expression of concern for a person who seems deeply troubled, Hoffner says. “It’s saying to them, ‘I care about you.’ ”

During her presentation at Buchanan Recreation Center on June 20, Hoffner talked about effective ways to identify and approach people who might be contemplating suicide.

People considering suicide often have a “care-less” attitude, are moody, withdrawn and isolate themselves from others, Hoffner said. They also might have a sense of hopelessness, and feel numb and ashamed.

Those with suicidal tendencies can be ambivalent and vacillate between a desire to live and die, Hoffner said.

By learning to recognize the signs of a suicidal person and talking with him, a friend, family member — or even a total stranger — can direct the person to help that is available, Hoffner said.

When a person at risk of suicide is asked directly about his intentions, it removes the stigma of the situation and gives him permission to talk about what he is experiencing, she said.

“We have to be brave enough to ask this question,” said Hoffner. “We can be nosy about issues that make a difference.”

Suicidal people may offer “invitations” to inquiries from others, she pointed out. Picking up on these cues and listening gives the person trying to help them information, while validating the feelings of those in distress.

One roadblock to helping those at risk is a reluctance of some people to acknowledge the possibility and discuss it, Hoffner said. Other people may not want the responsibility of dealing with a person contemplating suicide.

“Every community is affected by suicide,” she said. “We can start by talking about it.”

Rather than trying to help someone who is suicidal sort out his problems, the immediate goal is to keep him safe, Hoffner said. The person helping the troubled one should also make efforts to protect himself, Hoffner said.

“If there is imminent risk with firearms, call 911,” she advised.

Where to find help

Having a suicidal person transported to an emergency room is advisable in many instances — especially if there is immediate risk of the person harming himself, Hoffner said.

Calling a suicide hotline for assistance is a valuable resource for those who do not appear to be in imminent danger, she said. The number for the national hotline is 800-273-TALK.

People in distress can also find help at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, a nonprofit care provider that serves both private clients and those receiving assistance through Medicaid.

Although the mental health center does have a crisis hotline, it does not provide emergency services found at a hospital, said counselor Heather Trish.

“We’re very concerned about suicide,” she said. “We dedicate a lot of time and effort for that.”

People can receive individual counseling from private therapists and counselors through the Jefferson Center for Mental Health on a sliding-scale basis.

The center also has a veterans services coordinator that assists veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues, including the risk of suicide.

For more information, call the center at 303-425-0300. This phone number also serves as the 24/7 hotline for the agency.

A valuable resource for teenagers age 19 and younger is the Second Wind Fund, a nonprofit that serves at-risk youths who have no other access to health care.

The Second Wind Fund takes referrals from school counselors who have identified potentially suicidal teens, said executive director Richard Eveleigh. Teens receive 12 weekly sessions of therapy from counselors in private practice who help them develop problem-solving skills, said Eveleigh.

The Second Wind Fund was founded in 2002 when four Jefferson County high school students ended their lives through suicide. The organization relies on donations and fund-raising events such as the upcoming annual run-walk on Sept. 21. For more information, visit  www.secondwindfund.org.

To learn more about safeTALK, which is offered through Living Works, an international suicide intervention company, visit www.livingworks.net/programs/safeTALK.

Colorado a high-risk state for suicide

Colorado ranks eighth in the country for the incidence of suicide, according to the most recent data, said Jarrod Hindman of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention. The adolescent suicide rate in Colorado is also in the top 10 nationwide, he said.

“There are so many factors, and research that needs to be done,” Hindman said of the incidence of suicide in the state.

The vastness of Colorado and low-population areas translate into less access to mental health care resources, said Hindman. Also, the rugged individual mentality of many Coloradans leads to isolation and a reluctance to seek help, he said.

People who are burdened with serious life problems and illness also are at greater risk of suicide.

Among possible risk factors in Colorado and other states in the Rocky Mountain West is living at high altitude, according to some research, Hindman noted.

A study done by emergency medicine physicians showed a positive association between altitude and suicide in 2,584 counties in the United States.

Higher suicide rates at high elevations could be related to hypoxia, which affects hemoglobin levels and can increase mood disturbances, according to a research paper published in High Altitude Medicine and Biology in April 2011.

“Many demographic, psychiatric and socio-cultural factors are associated with suicide. … But when other risk factors were considered, the strong association between altitude and suicide was still present in suicides overall,” the study stated.

Another study in published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2010 reported that the risk for suicide increases by nearly one-third at an altitude of approximately 6,500 feet above sea level. This study also concluded that the higher rates of gun ownership in the West may be connected with altitude in influencing suicide rates.

Contact Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com.