Tracey Shipley
Youth, family and addictions counselor/creative therapist

Becoming a gatekeeper to prevent suicide

They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Sadly, once it happens there is no coming back.

It’s unfathomable to believe that there is a suicide every forty seconds somewhere in the world.  In my field of working with teens and young adults struggling to keep it together, this option is often considered.  I needed to learn more about what the warning signs are, what to do when we fear someone is considering suicide and how to explain it to loved ones if it has occurred.  Milam, Jerusalem’s center for families dealing with mental illness invited me to learn just that.

I was privileged to attend a workshop on becoming a gatekeeper to help prevent suicides from happening.  The information given was extremely important and I committed to writing a blog to help all of us know the signs of potential suicide and how to help before it is too late.

Certain facts are important to begin with.  Once someone has attempted suicide chances are they will try it again.  In most cases people considering this act don’t want to die, they just don’t want to live.  The highest rate of suicide is amongst the elderly, those with Borderline personality condition, LGBTQ teens; especially those who were “Outed” against their will and because of how they are treated by society, those who inflict self-harm and new immigrants. In actuality, one-third of the suicides committed in Israel were by new immigrants many of whom are Ethiopian.  Women actually attempt more but men actually go through with it more.  Also highly at risk are those who have been physically or sexually abused, are depressed and anxious, post traumatized, addicted, bipolar and schizophrenic.  In addition, If someone in the family has committed suicide there is a greater chance that they will attempt suicide as well.

Changes in circumstances also can trigger extreme reactions.  If they are being bullied, if they have suffered a break-up or divorce, a change in a living situation, being around others who are suicidal, the fear of being arrested, getting fired or being unemployed, stopping their anti-psychotic medication, terminally ill to name a few.

Now for our role as gatekeepers.  How can we help avoid suicide.  First of all, always take talk about suicide seriously.  Allow them to speak about it and ask them questions.  Validate their desire to kill themselves as an option but encourage them to look at other options.  Let them know that it is always there to choose but let’s postpone it for now.  Help them to look at reasons to keep on living.  Help them to list all of the good things in their lives and those who care about them. Help them to see that life is worth living. Also, discuss how their actions affect their loved ones.

It is important to identify red flags.  For instance, if someone is depressed and wants to sleep all of the time, if they lose their sense of humor, if they stop eating or drinking, stop taking their medication, speak about wanting to hurt themselves, statements like “I can’t do this anymore”, take more medication than they are supposed to and of course speak about suicide.

Once upon a time professionals used contracts stating that the person in danger of suicide promises not to kill himself before he phones them.  This is not used much anymore though asking them to tell someone when they are feeling down making sure that they have a list of people to call is important. The list should include phone numbers for easy access.

Never say “You wouldn’t dare to do that” “You are just acting stupid to talk like that” or “I don’t want to hear about it; don’t talk about it around me”.  Just having someone to validate their feelings can make a huge difference.  Keep your eyes open to sudden changes and inquire as to what is happening. Also, keep the space safe even if it means locking up knives and medication.  Sometimes just having to go to the next room to look for something to use to hurt themselves can be enough to have them take a few moments to reconsider.

Some of the tools that can be used to help those in danger of suicide are encouraging them to listen to happy music, take a walk, exercise, do breathing exercises, take a shower, use guided imagery, meditate or do yoga.  If they say they need to feel pain you can suggest using ice on their arm or pinching themselves.

In the case of an actual suicide, it is important to speak about it with the family.  Secrets keep a family sick and even young children will sense that something is wrong. Never speak of the one who committed suicide as a bad person rather as someone who did something terrible that caused a lot of harm to himself and those who cared about him.  We also never say succeeded in committing suicide; it’s never a success.

Toward the end of the session, we were shown some very powerful clips.  One was a talk by Keven Hynes, a young man whose mother was a drug addict using while pregnant. He was adopted at a young age and excelled in everything at school including university.  One day he began experiencing bi-polar symptoms such as paranoia and psychotic thoughts.  He couldn’t bear it and decided he needed to kill himself. He went to the university guidance counselor and dropped out of most of his classes.  You would think this would create concern.  They didn’t pick up on it. He then made it to the Golden Gate Bridge and actually jumped off.  Yes most do die on impact but around 10% survive.  Kevin was one of them but barely breaking almost every bone in his body.  It is worth it to watch this testimonial clip he made to help us understand this issue better.

The most moving Youtube that they showed and affected me the most was created by Fouseytube.  They did something they called the Suicide Experiment.  It showed two young men in different cabs telling the cab drivers that they were having a very hard time and asked to get off at a bridge.  When they got out of the cabs the drivers got out as well and physically kept them from jumping.  It was so beautiful and such an indication that all it takes is someone telling them that life is worth living and it will cause too much pain to others to actually kill themselves to have someone reconsider.  I encourage you to watch this moving clip:

In Kevin’s story, no one tried to stop him and he actually jumped.

You too can make a difference!!!  For more information on how to help your loved one struggling with mental illness contact Milam.

About the Author
Tracey Shipley is a youth and family counselor specializing in addictions and family communication. She was born in the US and moved to Israel in 1984 to continue her studies in Art Therapy. She moved back to the US in 1989 and began working in a drug rehab for teens where she was trained while she worked as a primary counselor. She moved back to Israel in 1996 and continued her work in addictions at the Jerusalem Methadone Clinic for a total of 9 years. She initiated projects for the children of the addicts at the Center, for Ethiopian Teens and a Sober Music Bar for teens and young adults: Sobar Jerusalem.
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