‘No substitute for asking’: Crisis intervention expert shares insight

April 2019 Posted in Community, Your Health

Guest Opinion Mike Ashland

One evening in 2001, while working online preparing for a parenting class, a chimey little AOL sound went off and a window popped up on the screen. One of my student leaders IM’d me, “I’m online with Sabeen (not her real name). Did an assessment. She’s suicidal and has the pills.” I sent back, “I have her phone number. I’ll call her right now. Good job.”

I called Sabeen’s number and her dad picked up. He hollered for Sabeen, who came on the phone. I heard his phone click off.

“Hey. I got a call that you might be feeling suicidal. Can we talk?” Sabeen said yes, but for sure she was embarrassed.

Over the next few minutes I repeated the simple assessment that I have taught ALL leaders in every ministry, regardless of age – even down to 5th grade.

1) If you suspect or fear that someone might be suicidal, ASK THEM. “Are you thinking about killing yourself? ANY answer other than a shocked, emphatic “NO!” means yes. “Not really…” means yes. 2) If yes, ask, “How would you do it?”
Any plan whatsoever should be followed up. For example, “How would you do it?” Sabeen was quiet for a bit (which is a yes) and told me, “I would take pills.”
I asked the important follow-up question, “Do you have any pills?” Sabeen told me, “No. But my mom has a lot in their medicine cabinet.” Sabeen was feeling suicidal, had a plan and the means to carry it out right now.

This is important. Anyone with someone who is suicidal needs some rules. In our training, a “Yes” to the first question demanded contact with a parent or qualified adult. A yes with a plan and means is an emergency and requires immediate contact with a qualified adult or a 911 call or, preferably, both.

3) I include in training what will happen with a 911 call. Be sure to mention on the call that you have confirmed the person is suicidal and has a plan and means. Most likely a police officer will show up and perform what is called a “welfare check.” They are trained to assess if someone is a danger to themselves or others.

I have intervened, through my students and adult leaders, in dozens of suicide situations over my career. When I train for suicide intervention, I warn students that they will hate me. Because, once you know the signs (articulated well in [Our Town’s] April piece, “Giving teens skills to combat anxiety, suicide”), you know that listening to your intuition demands that you ask the above questions and take action.

Though I have intervened in dozens of cases, the students and adults I’ve trained have continued to intervene throughout their lives, saving countless people by having the courage to ask the most difficult questions.

Sabeen’s father hadn’t hung up. He came on, asked Sabeen to hang up, and proceeded to “rip me a new one” for talking to his daughter without talking to him first. Fair point.

But Sabeen’s safety came first and the dad’s response that “all kids think about suicide” and “putting all this in Sabeen’s head is the most dangerous thing you could do,” are the kind of thinking that delays intervention.

It took a long time with her dad, and then her mom, to realize that the threat of suicide was real and that they couldn’t just “talk” her out of it. They took her to the hospital where she was admitted for a 72-hour hold. Yes, it was terribly embarrassing for her and her parents. They blamed me and the student friend who’d contacted me. But Sabeen, then a high school sophomore, got into treatment and through counseling and medication, became a healthy, happy, functioning woman. Today she’s a wife and a mom and a nurse who dedicated her life to helping intervene in other people’s lives. Her parents credit me with saving her life.

The student leader who was the real hero? She went on to an ivy league college where she founded a suicide intervention program that is still going  on after 15 years.

“Parents are our first line of defense…”  I must disagree. Students are the real first line of defense, if they are trained to recognize, assess and respond to a suicidal friend or classmate.

I was delighted to see your article. And it outlined beautifully the conditions of suicide and how important resiliency is in combating suicide. BUT THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR ASKING THE QUESTION OUT LOUD: “Are you thinking about killing yourself” and knowing how to follow up and respond.

40 years working in the youth and parenting field, Mike Ashland founded Tears Crisis Intervention which trained thousands of church, school and nonprofit staff and volunteers throughout the West Coast. The suicides of three siblings and other family members inspired him to learn, work and educate in the crisis intervention field. He is semi-retired and is currently Pastor of the Church of the Moment in Silverton.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.