Suicide Prevention Workshop Held at Washingtonville HS
By Eugenia Moskowitz
When a problem presents itself, the best way to handle it is to break it down into manageable components and tackle those. How to write that extended essay in history class? Break your claim down to paragraphs that elaborate on it, and tackle it bit by bit.
Not so easy with mental health problems. Or is it? Sean Gerow, a long time Orange County expert in the field of suicide prevention, says there is a way to break down the problem, commonly thought impenetrable, of people who are considering suicide, and that ordinary people can play a major role in stopping it. And he came to Washingtonville High School on Jan. 31, upon invitation from the district, to explain to parents, community residents, and school staff members exactly how to do it.
In the same affable manner he often uses with ninth- and tenth-graders in local schools, Gerow employed a workshop style of introducing the facts surrounding suicide statistics and eliciting opinions from the audience as he went through a thorough presentation on how we as communities can work to end suicide.
The same way police officers are trained to talk people off of ledges, regular people can talk to people they suspect may be considering suicide. Gerow said the word “commit” has been taken out of the language, as it tends to hint that the action is somehow a crime. “You don’t ‘commit’ diabetes, which is treatable,” he said, “so why would we say people are thinking of ‘committing’ suicide? Instead, they’re having suicidal thoughts, which is more accurate.” These thoughts are also, he said, identifiable, treatable, and can be diffused and thwarted. But how?
Simple, he said. You break it down into steps, or what is called QPR, which stands for Question Persuade and Refer. Start with Q — Question the person: What’s wrong? Are you ok? How can I help? Often, he said, simply reaching out and talking is all the suicidal person needs because, he said, they really don’t want to die, they want to live, they just want the pain to go away. He also said that students can best act as checkpoints or “gatekeepers” for each other, and that for those considering suicide, it’s important to think of who they can confide in, even if its just one person.
Next, go to P — Persuade: talk to the person privately. Be persistent, allow the person to talk freely, and just listen. Let them know that, while there are no promises that tomorrow will be better, there is hope. Gerow urges people not to offer judgement or give advice, or even try to “fix” the problem, but rather encourage the person to keep talking, and then persuade them to seek help. Saying things such as, “Promise me not to kill yourself until we get some help,” is useful, he suggested.
Finally, R — Refer: the friend and/or the suicidal person can then tell others, such as school guidance counselors, school social workers and psychologists, the school nurse, teachers, principals, coaches, and School Resource Safety (SRO) officers. Friends can also ask the person who else would they want to seek help from, such as a family member, clergyman, or a physician. (Gerow noted that a physician’s referral can often speed up entry to a mental health crisis center.) Depression, with its high correlation to suicide, is a treatable mental illness, there is help out there, and if people get the mental help they need, they then realize that it exists and they understand how to get that help again should another crisis arise.
Some common myths about suicide Gerow debunked are: 1) You can stop suicide. 2) Confronting someone does not increase the risk, it reduces it by lowering anxiety, opening up communication, and lowering the chance of an impulsive act. 3) You don’t need to be an expert to prevent a suicide; it’s everyone’s business, and anyone can help prevent a tragedy. 4) Most people will communicate their intent to kill themselves, especially in the week prior to the attempt, via what Gerow calls clues or “invitations.” 5) There is always time to stop a suicide. It’s not easy, but it is preventable. 6) Young people tend to tell other young people rather than adults, because they assume adults won’t believe them, or they don’t trust an adult with such a topic.
Some common behavioral signs, he says, are: isolation; giving away of possessions; change in habits, interaction with family/friends, or drastic decline/improvement in schoolwork; unreasonable euphoria, as if the person has a great weight off their shoulders now that suicide seems a viable option to ending pain; and talk about suicide, whether verbal or written (including social media). Other sign sinclude: increased risk-taking; possession of guns or drugs; and self-destructive acts. An interesting statistic, he said, is that, while females are more likely to attempt suicide, males are more likely to succeed.
Some situational components that can cause a depressed person to consider drastic measures include: an unwanted move to a new home or school; the loss of a relationship; being fired from a job or expelled from school; the death of a loved one; or the diagnosis of a terminal illness.
CAPTION: Sean Gerow spoke to parents, community residents, and school staff about suicide prevention and awareness at the Washingtonville High School library on Jan. 31. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)