Sunday, September 04, 2011

What to say to someone at risk of suicide

By now, many of you have seen a news item that public speaker and social media expert Trey Pennington committed suicide this morning.

I did not know Trey personally. He was one of my earliest Twitter followers (one of over 100,000 people he followed). If you look at his Twitter feed, even just before he passed away, you will see someone who was incredibly upbeat, articulate, and giving to others. And perhaps today, someone who reminds us that depression and hopelessness can strike anyone – even someone with enough friends to fill a small city.

Which brings up something I strongly feel everyone should know, just like we learn first aid or CPR. Most of us have the best of intentions when someone in our life is depressed – but in reality, we have no clue what to say. So we say things that don't help – or make the other person feel worse – or worst of all, we say nothing at all. (As one example, most of the things we think will motivate or cheer on a depressed person do not actually help.)

In 2005, when I was a crisisline counselor, I penned an anonymous piece for the Ithaca Journal about what we are trained to say to people in crisis. (Crisisline counselors, while actively serving, remain anonymous in the community.) I personally did not know these skills until I was taught them. If everyone learned them – especially how to really listen, without giving advice or "fixing" the other person – it would have a real impact.

People may not realize that crisis counseling is incredibly effective. Informal studies have shown that people who call crisislines are much more likely to stay alive afterwards. So if you are hurting, please, please call 800-273-TALK from anywhere in the USA, 24 hours a day. Be safe and be well.

* * *

As a volunteer for Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, I am fortunate to work alongside a great team of staff and volunteers. Together, we help over 10,000 callers a year from all walks of life - and while the calls themselves are anonymous and confidential, some of the life lessons they teach us are worth passing along to all of us.

First of all, you might think that the main function of an agency called Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service is to prevent people from committing suicide. Wrong. That happens to be the most critical thing we do, and we are highly trained for it. But what usually happens day in, day out, 24 hours a day on the SPCS Crisisline is something that is even more important: we show respect, dignity and understanding to a great many people who often experience none of these things in the rest of their life.

You see, the typical Crisisline caller isn't about to commit suicide. The typical caller may be a teenager whose parents constantly scream at him about his clothes, his tattoos and his attitude - but is feeling lonely and scared. Or a severely mentally ill person who is keenly aware of the strange looks she gets from passers-by, and feels ignored and rejected by her family, friends and caregivers. Or a retired professional who feels alone and useless, as his once-busy days now drag on endlessly. Or someone who feels compelled to cross-dress, or cut themselves, and feels out of control.

They could be any of literally thousands of people in this community who are hurting in ways that make them feel alone and different from the rest of us - and desperately need to talk with someone.

Here are some of the things that crisis counselors do when these people call the SPCS Crisisline:

Really listen. When someone has a problem, human nature is to give advice - or criticism. Crisis counselors never do either. Instead, they listen - and continually acknowledge the feelings of the person they are listening to. This creates a zone of acceptance where people can truly open up and start to examine and solve problems.

Check for safety. Many of us are afraid to say anything when we are worried someone might hurt or kill themselves - sometimes, tragically, until it is too late. Crisis counselors check with every person, on every call, to make sure they are safe. Never be afraid to ask frankly if someone has been considering suicide.

Focus on the present moment. Crisis counselors cannot cure mental illness, take away losses, or fix someone's life. What they can do, perhaps better than anyone, is look for the one most important thing bothering someone right now. These "focusing questions" help shift the dialog toward making small, positive steps - the act of which is very important in crisis.

Explore alternatives. The next step in someone's life might involve a community resource, like counseling or shelter. Or it might just involve discussing feelings and alternatives with an empathetic and non-judgmental person. Crisis counselors help people explore their options, and make choices that are best for them.

Establish a safety plan. Above all, if someone has expressed a risk of committing suicide, work with this person to develop a plan for what they will do when they are overwhelmed - who they will call, what health care providers will be contacted, where they will go. Then ask this person to contract with you to execute this safety plan - and call you, or a crisisline - before they decide to act on feelings of suicide.

If we each started treating the people in our lives like this - whether it is our spouses, our children, our co-workers, or even the person sitting next to you at the bus stop - the difference would be truly life-changing, for them and for us. And in some cases, perhaps life-saving.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Word pictures

I will never grow old as long as iTunes is around. This week, they just announced the pre-release of "The Beatles 1," a collection of each of their number 1 chart hits – the last of which was released over 40 years ago.

So what do the Beatles sound like to me? Of course, they sound like Buffalo, New York. Because as I was growing up in 1960s Buffalo, the Beatles and top 40 radio were the soundtrack to my life. So for me, the Beatles will always sound like my parents' Oldsmobile station wagon, football practice at Ellicott Creek Park, fish fry on Fridays from Brownraut's, Catholic school, and my first ride on a Boeing 707.

And Elvis Presley? Why, he sounds like China. When I took a sabbatical from my software job in the 1980s and taught at a Chinese university, soon after that country opened up to the West, my colleagues at Tianjin University taped my lectures – and tried to make me feel "at home" by playing elevator pop music beforehand. So one morning I popped out their tape, put in my own cassette of Heartbreak Hotel, and proceeded to teach them some American musical culture – explaining who Elvis was, and how he sang about things like going to a very bad hotel when your girl left you, gyrating my hips instructionally as everyone roared with laughter.

Of course, your Beatles and your Elvis are probably very different from mine. And that is the point. Words paint very different pictures for each of us. And we often get into trouble when we assume that our picture is the only possible one.

For example, when you say "productivity," your word picture might be one of helping people do their very best. My word picture might be of a slavedriver who burns people out. My view of "success" might be liberating, and your view of "success" might seem like a straightjacket of other people's expectations. Just because I am an adult, and like to read books, doesn't mean that I would want to visit an adult bookstore.

Of course, things get even worse when you turn to politics. I was a real American last time I checked my passport, but calling myself one would move my needle pretty far to the right. I might like the sound of being a non-conformist, but showing up in a gathering of them in my best suit – which certainly wouldn't conform – might not have the desired effect. Being in favor of speaking English can mean totally different things to your English teacher and the folks on the Arizona border. And, of course, when I grew up during the Cold War, living on a commune might have been fine, but being a aficionado of commune values – e.g. a commun-ist – often was not.

So how do you get around this problem? Discover what pictures the other person sees from your words. Take a genuine interest in how they see the world. Learn from them, rather than trying to "enlighten" them, and you will probably both be enlightened.

In the case of Elvis, my hosts eagerly wanted a copy of my music – which I agreed to, as long as they gave me a copy of their favorite music in return. What I got was a Chinese opera that was so sweet and poignant that it still brings a lump to my throat. And to this day, I still try to hear everyone else's music.