Making Suicide Everyone’s Business

Kids crying on the soccer field at Mattituck High School in 1994. Kurt Cobain had just died.

The death of teenagers by suicide is a subject that hits communities to the core, but people in our midst are quietly contemplating suicide every day, giving off subtle clues that often go unnoticed until after someone takes their life.

The Family Service League has been making the rounds of community centers on the East End over the course of the past month, teaching anyone how they can become alert to the signs of suicidal thoughts and help people who are feeling suicidal find the professional help they need.

“Suicide is everyone’s business,” said FSL trauma and crisis counselor Donna Altonji, who led one of these safeTALK trainings with FSL Community Director Cynthia McKelvey at Southold’s Peconic Lane Community Center April 20.

The same training will be offered at the Hampton Bays Senior Center on April 27 at 5:30 p.m. and at the Montauk Library on April 28 at 5 p.m.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of high school students had “seriously considered attempting suicide” in 2015, compared with just 3.9 percent of adults. Communities all over the East End have been shaken by teen suicides in recent years.

Ms. Altonji said teenagers are often aware when their friends are suicidal, and they also often try to talk them through their pain without seeking outside help, which can have devastating consequences.

“We’ve lost kids because of that,” she said. “They think they’ve fixed the problem, because kids think they can fix anything.”

The safeTALK training, designed by LivingWorks Education, is designed to help people be aware of the ways in which suicidal people reach out for help, and on effective strategies for letting them share their pain and getting them to a safe place where they can receive professional help.

Ms. Altonji and Ms. McKelvey said many suicidal people are looking to their friends for a reason to stay alive, and they often drop hints that go unnoticed. They said it’s important, when you have a hunch someone is thinking about suicide, to address the subject directly.

“Invitations to help are often missed,” said Ms. McKelvey. “If you use the word suicide, they won’t get upset. They’ll feel relief that you’re not afraid of the word.”

Ms. Altonji said sometimes, in school setting, social workers are hesitant to use the word suicide, thinking it might give teenagers ideas.

“The reality is, our children are talking about suicide,” said Ms. McKelvey. “As a parent, you really want to be in that conversation.”

Ms. Altonji added that, when her team goes into a school after a suicide, they are often looking to prevent a “suicide contagion,” when other students commit suicide.

“It’s ok to have a memorial in the school, or at the person’s locker, but don’t glorify it,” she said. “That memorial is coming down in three days.”

They added that suicide doesn’t have an economic corollary — pressure to do well in school, drugs and psychological problems can be just as devastating to affluent people as the hopelessness of poverty.

Ms. McKelvey added that it’s important not to dance around the question — if you ask someone who’s suicidal if they want to hurt themselves, she said, they might say no because they don’t think of killing themselves as hurting themselves. They may even think of it as ending the pain they are already in.

The TALK portion of the safeTALK training is an acronym for “Tell, Ask, Listen, Keep Safe,” and it is meant to serve as a reminder that when someone tells you something that sounds like it could be related to suicide, you should ask them directly if that’s what they’re talking about.

It’s a friend or counselor’s job then to listen — not to judge or to give advice, get angry or panic.

Once they’ve heard the suicidal person out, they said, an important piece is help steer them to somewhere they’ll be safe — either to a doctor’s office or an institutional setting, or, if there is imminent danger, to the police.

Tell them “This is important,” said Ms. Altonji. “Say ‘I have to do this. I’m not going to take a chance on losing you.’”

Both women acknowledged that mental health resources on the East End are difficult to come by — there are few hospitals that provide mental health care, and there are often waiting lists for therapists that take insurance. Hospitalization is, in a way, a necessary precursor to outpatient treatment, since patients should not be discharged without follow-up treatment in place.

Ms. Altonji urged anyone who is talking to someone who has had previous bad experiences with the mental health system to keep trying until they find a doctor or a medication that works for them.

“It’s like shopping for something very expensive and important,” she said.

The counselors said safeTALK training is a useful tool for anyone, and they’re looking in particular to provide it to first responders, mental health professionals and community groups. Teenagers over the age of 15 are also welcome to take the class.

For more information on upcoming local classes, visit www.livingworks.net, or to schedule a class email Ms. McKelvey at cmckelvey@fsl-li.org.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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