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What I Learnt from Taking a Suicide Prevention Course

As September is Suicide awareness month and I recently took part in two suicide prevention courses I thought I would share what I learnt. Both courses were provided free by the HSE, they were SafeTalk which is a half day course and ASSIST which is two days. The Safe Talk was relatively easy as it only lasted half a day and as a prerequisite to doing the ASSIST course it was more like an introduction to suicide awareness and suicide First Aid.

When I signed up and even after the SafeTalk course I didn’t really think about how difficult it would be to sit in a room for two days and talk only about suicide but my discomfort was testament to the fact that we as a society find suicide to be an extremely hard subject to discuss. I remember when I was a really young child and I first heard about suicide and it shocked me to my core. I couldn’t even bear to think about it. In my child’s mind I couldn’t conceive of the idea that someone would end their own life, the thought terrified me so I would push it out of my mind. I can see now that when I thought about it, I was forced to imagine being in that dark a place and that place was unbearable to inhabit even for a moment. Although I am grown up now I think to a degree this is still true, we don’t want to bring it up because we’d have to live it fleetingly so instead we try to ignore it.

The course coordinators are clearly aware of this discomfort as every participant is sent a message before the course advising them not to partake if they are suicidal or have recently lost someone to suicide. Now I can really see how necessary this warning is. Before attending I envisaged a lecture hall type environment of mainly health professionals taking notes when in fact it was a group of 24 people from all walks of life. The first morning was filled with formalities and then we watched four videos of people exhibiting signs or “invitations” of suicide. Then in the afternoon we were split into two groups in two different rooms where we sat in a circle and discussed the clips we had seen.

I couldn’t possibly cover everything we were taught here but I will describe the most impactful sections of the two days for me although I would recommend everyone to do a course like this. The aim of these courses is that everyone knows suicide first aid and we can therefore prevent suicide from happening.

On the first day when we were split into two smaller groups we were given an exercise where we got 3 large sheets of paper with the titles ‘Events’, ‘Groups’ and ‘Behaviours’. Under each heading we had to write events that might cause someone to suicide (ASSIST discourages saying ‘commit suicide’ as an attempt to remove the stigma as suicide is not a crime), groups that are particularly vulnerable to suicide and behaviours that a suicidal person might exhibit. The below table are examples of what you could write (this is not an exhaustive list);


There were many more examples but the main things we learnt from this exercise is that ALL groups are vulnerable to suicide and thinking only one group is vulnerable can lead us to miss things. Every member of our society enters one of the ‘Groups’ mentioned at one point in their life. Behaviours can vary but it’s usually a change in normal behaviour that we should look out for. Events are usually a perceived ‘Loss’ and perceived is very important here. You may think a loss such as a job is not such a big thing but to that person if they identified hugely with their job it could be a huge loss. Similarly you may think a divorce is a huge loss but it may not be to someone who was very unhappy in their marriage. What’s important is the person’s perception of the loss which will determine how they deal with it. This is also the case for huge changes in circumstances, sometimes a natural progression in life which is seen as a happy time for many can cause a huge upheaval such as leaving home and school friends to go to college or leaving college and looking for a job.

At the end of the first day we were all told to not do anything too exerting that evening and take some time for ourselves or ‘Self-care’ as it was called and then on the morning of the second day we were all asked what we did which was added to a list.

The most powerful part of the course for me was at the end of the second day where one instructor stood at the top of the class and the other instructor said “imagine she is someone at risk of suicide, I want ye to represent a service available to her, come up tell her what you can do for her and stand behind her”. One by one most of the class rose and introduced themselves and stood behind her. For example “I am the Samaritans, you can call me 24/7 to talk about your problems”. At the end of this exercise she was stood surrounded by over twenty people representing a service that could help someone at risk of suicide, then another person was asked to read the list of ‘Self-care’ activities we had all done the evening before to her. This was a really strong moment for me because all at once suicide did appear preventable and I knew that it was possible to do something about it. What seemed like an unsurmountable problem for so long now seemed conquerable.

The primary objective of ASSIST is to make us aware of the ‘Invitations’ suicidal people give out for intervention either consciously or subconsciously, to make us not limit our ability to perceive these ‘invitations’ by thinking only certain groups are vulnerable and (when we perceive them) to make delve deeper and be capable of getting the person help. Sadly a small percentage will give no signs but the majority do. People who are at risk of suicide are in mental agony and are struggling to survive in their own minds. We as a society need to be brave enough to talk about suicide and to begin to notice the signs so we can prevent it.

If you or anyone you know is at risk of suicide or having suicidal thoughts. You can call the following helplines;

Samaritans:  Freephone 116 123

Console: Helpline (24hr): 1800 247 247

If someone is in urgent need of assistance you can call Emergency 999 for the Guards and an ambulance or take the person to A&E.