safeTALK Suicide Alertness Program

safeTALK Suicide Alertness Program

imageWhat do you say when you feel someone may be having thoughts of suicide? If you ask a person about suicide does this increase the chance that they may think about it, even if they weren’t in the first place? If a person is thinking of suicide, do you have to be a qualified health practitioner to help?

All these questions, and more, are discussed during safeTALK, a suicide alertness training program.

safeTALK was developed by LivingWorks, an internationally renowned organisation based in Alberta, Canada that evolved out of an Alberta-wide suicide prevention plan. As they note on their website, the organisation “was created to address the lack of effective suicide intervention skills among community helpers and clinical professionals.” LivingWorks provide this brief description of what safeTALK is:

safeTALK is a half-day alertness workshop that prepares anyone over the age of 15, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper. Most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die, but are struggling with the pain in their lives. Through their words and actions, they invite help to stay alive. safeTALK-trained helpers can recognize these invitations and take action by connecting them with life-saving intervention resources, such as caregivers trained in ASIST ( Source: accessed 09.06.2018

I had the privilege this week of participating in a ‘train the trainer’ session which now means that I can facilitate safeTALK within organisations and communities. So, what does the safeTALK acronym denote?

Let’s start with ‘safe’ which represents ‘suicide alertness for everyone’. This means that safeTALK is for many people in a communities or organisations, not just health professionals. It aims to provide a framework, the tools and some practiced skills so that those who complete the training are prepared and able to ‘meet’ someone who is having thoughts of suicide. How does it do this?

This is where the TALK acronym comes in, it stands for: Tell, Ask, Listen and Keepsafe.

Tell is all about the person who is having thoughts of suicide. Through conversation, they may offer ‘invitations’ or ‘cues’ that suicide is on their mind. These invitations may sound something like; “I can’t do this anymore” or “There’s nothing else to live for” or “I can’t see the point in living anymore”. Of course, they may not indicate thoughts of suicide, but the only way to find out is to listen for these invitations and if you do suppose thoughts of suicide, ask the person directly. This is where the next step comes in.

Ask is a direct question about suicide. safeTALK suggests that the best way to tackle this is to ask the direct question; “are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “are you thinking of killing yourself?”. It’s important not to be ambiguous about this question, rather be direct and clear.

Some people worry about asking and then the person answering no. They fear that asking such a question may concern the other person and damage the relationship they may have with them. While there can be no way to guarantee that it won’t, the program is built on the preface that when asking another person such a direct and confronting question, is likely to enhance, rather than harm a relationship, particularly if it comes from a position of care. If the answer is ‘yes’, you may find the next step of the model useful.

Listen is the step that some find the hardest, particularly in a culture where we are compelled to ‘fix’. Listening is about hearing the other persons story, where the attention is on them. Listening is the opportunity for them to express their feelings in a space where they feel comfortable. It may not take long, although it may, either way, giving people the space to share is an important step. So what next?

Keepsafe promotes helping the person to access appropriate support that may be available in that community or organisation. For example, at Lifeline we talk about a ‘suicide-safe community’, where a small number of people have the next level of skills, provided in another LivingWorks program that we promote called ASIST (‘Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training’). People who have done this training have the skills to connect people with help, which may be through professional support, family, friends or whoever else the person feels is appropriate, after all, it is about them.

Important in this step is the methodology that lies behind safeTALK. I don’t have the space in this piece to write about this, so I’ll write separately about it. However, the point to make at this point is that ‘safe’ is considered through the perspective of the other person, not something imposed upon them.

So, there is a short introduction to safeTALK, a set of tools and a model that may help in the case that you find yourself conversing with someone about suicide. How do I know?

Ironically while attending the training, a mate called to share with me a situation that he was facing with a person who said they were thinking of killing themselves. We talked through the model, and I encouraged him to use it, and he did, including asking the direct question. The result was that the person thinking of suicide had a conversation with a counsellor and he reported that he felt better over the last few days. Maybe it was just that someone demonstrated to him that they cared, that helped him, on this occasion?

safeTALK is a 3 ½ hour program that could help you and your team support someone at a time of crisis. If you’d like to know more or have any questions, I’d be happy to have a chat.

If you or someone you know needs help now or in a crisis, Lifeline is available 24/7 on 13 11 14.

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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