What I learnt from a course in ‘suicide first aid’

CPD relating to suicide prevention can be extremely enlightening and rewarding for teachers, writes George Peterkin

George Peterkin recommends the suicide First Aid course

Even hearing the word “suicide” can cause people to internally, and perhaps even externally, wince. For many, this reaction is understandable because suicide refers to mortality, but there are other reasons behind the response. A large factor is the stigma suicide carries within a whole society but also inside smaller communities. It can bring out fear, sadness and even anger in people.

I certainly do not think we should ignore or block these emotions, as emotions are human. What if I were to tell you though that suicide was one of the most preventable deaths? What if I were to tell you that it in fact has the highest rate of “recovery” out of common mental health problems?

“I made the decision to attend a mental health first aid course, and my path in life was changed forever.”

Unfortunately, in my teaching career and general life, I have come across suicide too many times. In 2016 I’d had enough of my feelings of powerlessness when it came to poor mental health within my life, both professionally and personally. I made the decision to attend a mental health first aid course, and my path in life was changed forever.

In 2017, I attended a suicide first aid course which had been recommended to me during some MHFA training. I have a can-do attitude, but even I was a little nervous and yes, frightened, about the training. I truly had no idea what to expect from it. I imagined worse case scenarios, and that it would be a day of all doom and gloom. I feared that my mood at the end would resemble the dark skyline of the February day in London when I attended the training.

It had to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It broke down so much of the stigma I realised I had in my own life and made me realise that there was a lot I could do to break this down further, both in the workplace and in my life in general. The suicide first aid course showed me that there are in fact three focuses for a suicide first aider: prevention, intervention and postvention.

Prevention

As most of us reading this know, suicide deaths are dominated by men regardless of which country. On average, 75 per cent of those that have died by suicide were men. It was one of the main reasons I attended the training as I went to an all-boys school, taught at an all-boys school, and spent most of my free time playing football with other men. Sadly, I was very much in an environment of people who may be taking up these statistics.

I learnt in the course the many reasons why men dominate these statistics, with one of the largest being that men are simply not as “emotionally aware” as women and they are “unable” to come forward to discuss what is going on for them. However, I did leave there with an understanding that these statistics can be reduced, and this leads to one of the biggest focuses of the course: prevention.

“It is the simple things done consistently that make the biggest impacts.”

We all have the ability to prevent suicide and reduce the statistics. Within a school, I realised that it does not require extreme or exceptional methods to do this. Simple things such as creating an environment where mental health can be discussed, and making students and staff aware that there is support within the school, can prevent suicide from occuring. It is the simple things done consistently that make the biggest impacts. I found that these preventive steps go in-line with what people can learn from the MHFA courses as well.

Intervention

Of course, we also covered the intervention stage: how to approach someone and hold a conversation if you suspect they may be at risk of suicide. I walked in thinking that we would be given scenarios and asked to re-enact them. Instead, the Suicide First Aid course uses a video with two people acting out a scene for us, which allows us to learn the three steps needed to intervene and give someone aid who may potentially be thinking of suicide.

“Sadly, we can never reduce suicide rates to zero.”

All of the information we were given regarding intervention was evidence-based through organisations such as Samaritans and the NHS, and the techniques learnt are so highly regarded that therapists, emergency services, military and of course educators regularly attend. I encourage any educator who attends to take the three steps and incorporate them into their policy writing and risk assessment forms when they have to intervene with a child or adult. When I attended, I learnt that by focusing on two questions – “What can be done to keep you safe?” and “Who can help with this?” – I could give the required aid to a person at risk.

Postvention

Postvention was created as a way to support those who are left behind from a suicide. Sadly, we can never reduce suicide rates to zero, so it is important that we can give support to family and friends who have lost someone to a suicide. The course explains how postvention has been carried out around the world, emphasising a proactive response rather than a reactive one.

The Suicide First Aid course itself and the steps covered are applicable to anyone at risk regardless of their age, gender, sexuality, religion or culture. Although I left the course with a head swirling with information and new things to consider, I realised the most important thing: I can aid in reducing those suicide statistics.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.