My last call for service before leaving my post with the NOPD Crisis Unit was a 24-year-old hanging from the rafters of his apartment, a clear and tragic sign that my advocacy work with the mentally ill was far from over. In my 10 years with the crisis unit, I was exposed to a large world of chronically mentally ill who live in our city, and their needs continue to be great, as witnessed in this last call.
The general public often does not hear about suicides, so most people are unaware how dire the situation is. Last year, Emergency Medical Services responded to over 350 attempted suicides and 29 suicide deaths, and NOPD is inundated weekly with 911 calls on folks having suicidal thoughts. These numbers reflect only a percentage of suicidal action in our city, as most are handled quietly through our Coroner’s office.
Every now and then, one will become the news. Most recently in the Uptown area, we had a situation in which a husband summoned police to assist with his wife, a middle-aged woman, apparently with a history of mental illness. Once police arrived, she barricaded herself in the bathroom and shortly afterward shot herself and family dog, a tragic ending for a person who had a history with mental health issues.
Suicide is often a very difficult topic to discuss and most people tend to shy away from it. But the consequences of silence can be deadly. So what can a friend, loved one or concerned citizen do if confronted with a situation that may include suicide?
The answer is TALK! I recently attended a suicide prevention workshop entitled “SafeTalk” which is a wonderful and simple guide to helping a suicidal person. If offers 4 very simple steps to the helper.
First Step: Tell. Recognize the signs of a person telling you they are thinking about suicide. This may be verbal such as “I am thinking of killing myself,” or “I have a way out of this.” Telling may also be non-verbal gestures such as giving away belongings, avoidant behavior, withdrawal from normal activities, excessive drug/alcohol use, excessive worry.
Second Step: Ask. Respond to invitation with a direct statement such as, “Are you talking about suicide?” or “Do you have a plan to kill yourself?”
Third Step: Listen. If the answer to the second step is yes, then listen with an invitation such as “Lets talk about this, I am listening.” This gesture will establish trust, validation and a relief for many simply by expressing their plan.
Fourth Step: Keep safe. Connect the person immediately with someone who is familiar with suicide intervention. This could be calling 211, our local crisis line, or 1-800-273 TALK or transport the person to the nearest emergency room.
It is vitally important not to dismiss or avoid opportunities to assist someone in crisis. Many people simply miss these opportunities for several reasons. Maybe the gesture made by someone in distress is simply not taken seriously. We may be afraid of being too nosy, or think perhaps we may make the situation worse. Maybe we are just too busy in our day to give this situation the time it needs.
It is important to know that the act of connecting them to the correct resources may be the answer to the beginning of healing for someone you may know in crisis. Also, talking about suicide or any mental health issue for that matter does help to dismiss many of the myths and misconceptions that shroud this disease.
If you have any questions regarding mental health or need further advice in getting care for a loved one, you can also email me at Cecile@crisis504.com for help.
Cecile Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker, spent the last 10 years with the New Orleans Police Department crisis unit, and resigned in October to pursue a dream of finding new ways to improve services for the chronically mentally ill in New Orleans. Her thoughts on mental-health issues and resources in New Orleans appear Tuesdays in UptownMessenger.com.