Keeping communities alert with safeTALK

Dana Nowling smiles with Ryan Rogers as attendees find their seats at the Oct. 4 safeTALK training held at EPHC’s Education Center in Portola. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

A group came together on the afternoon of Oct. 4 at the Eastern Plumas Health Care Education Center to train with Dana Nowling, Community Training Manager with Plumas Rural Services, and Ryan Rogers of Plumas County Behavioral Health on the subject of suicide alertness skills through the safeTALK program.

The class held in Portola was open to the public and was the fourth class that Nowling has taught thus far in Plumas County.

Nowling opened with an introduction of herself and the work she has been involved in, helping make the county and its communities a safer place for everyone.

“A few years ago, I worked at Feather River College and there were a few students that took their own lives,” Nowling recalled. “One such incident occurred while I was working there and there was this sense on campus of anger and helplessness — a ‘what are we going to do about it’ feeling.”

Nowling explained that they felt that they were just reacting, instead of being proactive, with many saying that surely something should be done.

At this point, a delayed grant came through at FRC, leading to a countywide initiative focused on creating a community that is more alert.

“We are concerned about the safety of our friends and family members,” Nowling said. “We want to be more alert to the potential for suicide.”

Nowling then played a slideshow with video clips as she began the training, starting with the meaning of safeTALK. “They are acronyms,” Nowling said. “Safe stands for Suicide Alertness For Everyone, and TALK stands for Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe.”

Nowling stated, “All of us have hope or want to have hope that we can help those who are suicidal.” She explained that suicide isn’t something to be ashamed or afraid of, despite the fact that many still feel that it is a taboo topic.

“Drunk driving, child abuse and domestic violence all used to be taboo subjects,” Nowling said. “We’ve evolved. Most now feel a need to be ‘helpfully nosy’ in some way.”

“It can be unpleasant to be aware of suicide and not know what to do about it,” Nowling went on. That is one key reason this training is being brought to the community, with plans to widen the reach in the near future.

“One in 20 people, or about 5 percent of the community, is thinking about suicide at any given moment. Everyone in this room has been touched by suicide in some way, whether it was a friend, family member or a well-loved celebrity.”

Nowling went on to explain that anyone can have thoughts of suicide — there isn’t any one specific “high risk” pool to put the focus on. “It’s not rare to have these thoughts,” Nowling said. “We are normalizing that it is OK to think these things, and that is major. It’s a part of the human condition and our perceptions really make a difference.”

Nowling went on to point out that thoughts are not preventable, but actions are.

“The vast majority of suicidal people want to stay alive,” she noted. “The desire to live is strong and there is always some doubt until the last moment. That is the stage where you would want to be alert because at this point, people give off indicators or invitations, consciously and subconsciously.”

This is where the Tell part of safeTALK comes in. “Most people won’t just come out and clearly state that they are thinking about suicide,” Nowling said. There are, however, nonverbal cues to look for. After group discussion, the room agreed that generally speaking, a suicidal person could give invitations in ways such as becoming careless, moody, withdrawn and abusing substances.

Other things to look for might include the way a suicidal person speaks, with many using absolute terms, such as “I will always be alone” or “I will never have a purpose.” Rogers chipped in that these absolutes are big red flags.

After discerning that a person may be suicidal, the next step is to Ask. “This is about finding out if suicidal thoughts are a possibility,” Nowling said. “It’s okay to ask, even if they deny feeling suicidal. It’s important to ask directly if someone is thinking of suicide, instead of avoiding the subject.”

The next step is to Listen. “What does listening, truly listening, do for the suicidal person?” Nowling asked the room. Answers varied, with attendees listing feelings of validation, connection, support, release, calm and value as effects of being truly listened to.

“We want to be active listeners,” Nowling said. “Holding that space for someone that may be suicidal is important, and when listening, remember to always emphasize that fact — end the listening step by stating, ‘This is important.’ Some may have an inability to clearly convey their feelings, and that’s okay. Holding that space is still important, as well as thanking the individual for their trust.”

The final step is KeepSafe, which is fairly self-explanatory. “We don’t want the individual to feel or be alone,” Nowling stressed. “This would be the time to do a warm hand-off.”

Nowling reminded the room, “We’re not here to save a life. We’re here to help them save their own lives. There will be people that suicide anyways, even if you try to help.”

The KeepSafe step is not the time to attempt to solve all of the problems in the suicidal person’s life. “Now is the time to do something that keeps the person with suicidal thoughts safe,” Nowling stated. “We are trying to keep thoughts of suicide from becoming injuries and deaths.”

One key point made was to never promise secrecy. “You can’t promise to keep this a secret because you want to get the person the help needed and protect them until that happens,” Nowling explained. At this point, a safeTALK-trained individual would attempt to connect the suicidal person with resources, starting with trusted friends or family and connecting with ASSIST trained suicide interventionists.

“There are many resources out there, from county Behavioral Health to suicide and crisis hotlines,” Nowling said. It is also important to partner with the suicidal individual, using “we” speak instead of “you.”

Nowling emphasized that it is vital to keep yourself safe while helping a suicidal person and that if there are signs of imminent danger, 911 is the best bet for assistance.

“Never put yourself in danger, get or call for help instead,” Nowling cautioned.

“We all have the capacity to ‘read’ other people to some degree,” Nowling added. “A willingness to be helpfully nosy and ask direct questions about the possibility of suicide is important.”

Nowling plans on facilitating more safeTALK trainings in the community in the future and anyone aged 15-and-up can attend and not only get tools for their emotional toolbox, but also become certified to help others.

“We’re a close-knit community, and see each other all of the time,” Nowling said. “We want to be more alert.”

For more information or to inquire about future safeTALK trainings, contact Dana Nowling at 283-2735, ext. 39, or email [email protected].