Learning to ask a life-saving question
“We need [governments] to be putting resources into where it’s going to be useful quickly on the ground,” said Associate Professor Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention research at youth mental health organisation Orygen.
“This isn’t time for awareness campaigns, it’s a time for helping young people quickly. Things like gatekeeper training appear to be effective in terms of increasing capacity to seek help, and to help each other.”
Research led by Dr Robinson has found gatekeeper training for students aged over 15 could have a positive impact on suicide-related behaviour. “We know young people will talk to each other more than they’ll talk to an adult,” she said.
Marc Bryant from LivingWorks Australia, a suicide prevention training organisation, said suicide was complex and risk factors varied. Many such deaths among young people happened without warning, and suicidal ideas could develop quickly.
“We only know if someone is thinking of suicide if they tell us, so we need to ask the question directly,” he said. “If they answer yes, we can connect them to safety such as a service.”
However, many people are frightened to raise it. And a clumsy approach could do further harm. “[Research found] some people were likely to respond to distress in ways that would make it more distressing to people at risk,” Mr Bryant said.
“It’s more about active listening, rather than telling them they shouldn’t have those thoughts. If you are trained, it’s okay to ask, ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ Even in the online training, which is our entry point, it can be quite confronting to test yourself saying the word.”
Ms Wassell did the 90-minute online training earlier this year. She learned about possible signs to look for, how to phrase the question, and what to do if the answer was yes – in which case she would tell them it’s a serious issue, and refer them to further support – or no.
“I would absolutely encourage other people to do it,” she said. “It’s worthwhile having that knowledge and being able to support your friends. The skills you use doing suicide [first aid] training means you can transfer it to other mental health issues.”
Since Northern Beaches Council received a NSW Health grant of $340,000 this year, 230 people have been through its program.
“Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say,” Mayor Michael Regan said. “Sometimes we are scared to say the wrong thing. This training helps people in our community feel more comfortable in those difficult but often critical situations where they can make a real difference to a life.”
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Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald