Helpers learn strategies to prevent suicide

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

12/17/2010 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Being alert to the possibility of suicide and asking direct questions can save lives.
"Learn to break down walls and hurdle roadblocks to bring about discussions," said Chaplain (Capt.) David Del Prado, who hosted a SafeTALK seminar Dec. 7. This three-hour program uses scenarios, discussion and role playing as an in-depth extension to annual training.

Training helpers to be sign- and symptom-aware conditions them to respond quickly when someone is at risk, he said. The goal is to be SAFE - Suicide Alertness For Everyone.

By talking about the problem and lessening the stigma, lives and careers can be saved.

"At no point do thoughts of suicide make you incapable of service," said Capt. (Dr.) Chad Morrow, a psychologist with the 42nd Medical Operations Squadron mental health clinic. Captain Morrow provided additional information during the workshop.
Thinking about death is normal, but the frequency of these thoughts will determine someone's risk, Captain Morrow said. That's why it is important for at-risk people to see a professional for evaluation.

The chaplain's office maintains 100-percent confidentiality. The mental health clinic provides confidentiality as well, unless there is an imminent risk. "Our goal is to rehabilitate," Captain Morrow said.

The aim of the program is to get people to the chaplain's office or mental health clinic before commanders are even needed. Early intervention by professionals can minimize negative consequences, the chaplain said.

The SafeTALK program trains helpers in the TALK approach: tell, ask, listen and keep safe. Once they feel comfortable with the steps, the helpers can avoid common pitfalls: missing the signs, dismissing the possibility of suicide and avoiding the discussion.


Most people contemplating suicide want help staying alive, Chaplain Del Prado said. Helpers need to recognize the signs they see, hear, sense and learn.

A sudden change in behavior, whether it's a sense of numbness or an urgency for a quick fix, can be a sign, Captain Morrow said. Other indicators include substance abuse, weight changes or moodiness.

People contemplating suicide often talk about feeling alone, full of shame or burdened by legal, financial, family or work pressures, the chaplain said. They may say their lives have no purpose and they are looking for an escape.

Sometimes it's just a hunch that the possibility of suicide is there, he said. A helper may sense the at-risk person is desperate, hopeless or shamed.

Asking questions and learning about a person's circumstances will build trust and reveal indicators. Acknowledging that a person is facing challenges will open a discussion, revealing a suicide risk if one exists.

Sometimes mentioning that a loved one has committed suicide is a sign. "They're feeling (suicide) might be OK because it happened before," the chaplain said.

Once a helper recognizes the signs, action is needed. Through role playing, the SafeTALK program develops confidence in the helpers to face the next step - a direct question.


"Direct and open talk is the key to preventing suicide," the chaplain said. He suggests asking, "Are you thinking about suicide?"

"This is the part that's most uncomfortable for folks," the chaplain said. "That's why we're here today."

The program stresses that thinking about suicide is human, especially during times of stress, but most people want help in staying alive.


"Most people will talk themselves out of (suicide) if you just listen," Captain Morrow said. "Become comfortable listening to something in an uncomfortable situation."

The workshop stresses that most people at risk have not fully decided to kill themselves. They want the invitation to talk, so helpers need to keep the conversation going.

"Encourage them by saying, 'Let's talk about this, I'm listening,'" the chaplain said.

Keep safe

The SafeTALK program requires helpers to escort the at-risk person to a resource and not leave him or her alone. Even if the person is reluctant, say, "I have to do this, I can't risk losing you," the chaplain suggested.

Helpers are not responsible for solving the person's problems. "You're not there to provide intervention," Chaplain Del Prado said. "Help them by taking them to a resource to help them cope with their situation."

Even if someone denies he or she is thinking about suicide, helpers should encourage a visit to the chaplain or mental health. "Let them know extra help is needed. There is still a situation," the chaplain said.

Never promise to keep a secret, and contact a professional as soon as possible, he said.

Several organizations are trained to provide assistance to people contemplating suicide, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit To reach a chaplain after-hours, call 953-7333.

Chaplain Del Prado offers the SafeTALK workshop monthly. To register for the next session or to become a SafeTALK trainer, call 953-2109.

Taking action

One of the steps discussed during suicide-prevention training is the need to escort an at-risk person to help. But that isn't possible during a long-distance situation, such as a deployment.

If the at-risk person is on a military installation, contact the chaplain's office, said Chaplain (Capt.) David Del Prado. Providing as much information as possible - full name, rank, unit and location - will increase response time.

When helping a friend long-distance, a fast response is necessary.

"We want to be able to respond quickly when someone is at risk," the chaplain said.

"Chaplains are trained to talk and offer intervention," he said.

To reach the Maxwell chaplain's office, call 953-2109 or 953-7333 after hours.