“Suicide Prevention” is not a term I’m happy with. It’s a bit like renaming a health course, “Death Prevention”. There’s only so much stark reality we can take! So what can we do instead?
Almost everybody, at one or more points in their lives, will encounter a situation where they do not know what to do. Depression or despair are such situations. The key component is the sense of helplessness, of not knowing how to fix a situation that is going badly wrong. These are situations that appear to have no hope, no solution. Perceptual bias kicks in and everything begins to take on a dark pessimistic look. The temptation to end it all can easily follow on from such thoughts. I believe that we can prepare people for these moments, helping them explore their options at such difficult times.
So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? There is really only one solution and that is to get more information. Many people make the choice to do nothing, to wait and see, to hope that something will change. A healthier choice would seem to be to seek new information actively.
Nowadays, when invited to speak to young people, I always include this exercise. Just as education is about preparing people for life and that means helping enrich their resources for living, I see this exercise as a way of helping them program their own minds for the times when they are stuck.
I start by reminding them that they will all experience times when things have gone wrong and there does not seem to be any solution, a dark painful place to be. What can they do? Some might suggest “getting help”. I prefer to call it “getting more information”. Of course, I explain, you might go to someone for extra ideas and they tell you to catch yourself on. This, I explain, is a clear signal that you need to talk to someone else! In fact, I point out, you might need to go to several persons before you hit on the one who can provide what you need.
I then suggest a list of possible resource people: friends, uncles, aunts, neighbours, relatives, guidance counsellor, ministers of religion, doctors, nurses, parents, teachers, grandparents. You can add to the list.
Then comes the key part of the exercise, I say something like: “I’m going to give you about a minute to think about this. In your own head choose one or two people you might turn to if you were well and truly stuck, if you had a big problem with no apparent solution. I am not going to ask you who you choose and I recommend that you do not share this information with anyone, not even your best friend.”
I allow the space for the students to reflect on this and then quietly continue with other parts of my presentation. I have planted the idea of getting new information when things look otherwise hopeless and, hopefully, I have helped them identify resource people in their own lives.
The attached poster is an additional way of encouraging young people to talk when the going gets tough. I like to ask students to put some of the phone numbers into their own mobiles just in case they or their friends ever need them. Feel free to make copies of the poster for every notice-board in your school.