By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor
On Republic Day at 3 p.m., 30 university students both male and female, took time out from their families to attend a gatekeepers’ training programme for suicide prevention and awareness.
Gatekeeper training teaches persons to identify individuals who are showing warning signs of suicide risk and help these individuals get the services they need. They can be committed persons with a desire to help others such as parents, friends, neighbours, teachers, clergy, case workers and police officers.
This programme was hosted by Mindwise Project and Google Women Techmakers and organised by Director Maria O’Brien, as part of the Career Development department of The University of the West Indies where they connect students with career- and skill-building opportunities.
It was a volunteer initiative aimed at students coming together to deliver tech-for-good solutions for mental health in our country and in the region. They would learn life skills to improve their own mental health and professional skills that would empower them to be gatekeepers and assist in the mental wellness of their own communities.
This social collective effort is sorely needed during the Covid-19 pandemic when the rates of suicidal deaths have increased across all age groups and more so, among the very young children in our society.
As the facilitator of this training programme, the first question that I posed to the students (who ranged in ages from 20–27 years) was: ‘Do you think that suicide can really be prevented?’.
Many persons believe that if someone has made up their mind to harm themselves, no-one can stop them. What do you think? Most of the students answered ‘Yes’ and suggested that intervention and support is necessary, and care and empathy shown in their moments of anguish.
What was not known to them is that many people who contemplate suicide, including those who eventually kill themselves, have ambivalent feelings about this decision—moments before they end their life.
This concept of ambivalence was explored in detail by Professor Ella Arensman from Ireland, my fellow panellist, as we ended the last day of the week-long IASP (International Association for Suicide Prevention) Global Congress in Australia September 24 at 3 a.m. Trini time. Virtually, of course.
I had just finished presenting my research on school alienation and the increase in self-harm among children and adolescents, when Ella discussed her detailed study on the moments before suicide, also conducted among a population of youth.
She stated that whilst persons are sincere in their desire to die, they simultaneously wish that they could find another way out of their dilemma. This was a critical dynamic which should be explored by all helpers and listeners as we find ways to divert suicidal behaviours and persuade instead, with messages of hope and purpose.
Gatekeeper training for suicide prevention therefore, also explores this disturbing variable of ambivalence and introduces QPR Theory—Question, Persuade and Refer—which is based on the fact that most suicidal persons send warning signs or red flags to others and are ambivalent and unsure of what to do, moments before engaging in self-harm or suicide.
Last week marked the end of Suicide Prevention month in September. The statistics are grim and many families in this country have lost loved ones to suicide.
We all have to be alert to the signs that someone may be in emotional and mental distress –listen to what they may say; pay attention to the final plans that they may carry out such as giving away personal items and tidying up their space.
Maria O’Brien’s vision was that the university students would be gatekeepers and mental health advocates who would learn from the training programme and know that they have ‘the power to create a better, healthier world where mental health is a priority’.
Let us all be advocates and make better mental health a priority wherever we are. Each one must reach one! We can reduce the impact of enforced physical distancing by maintaining the structure, quality, and quantity of the social networks of family members.
If we are teachers and educators, let us help children and adolescents experience social rewards and feel part of a group and a sense of belonging by increasing online learning in more social and affective ways, rather than solely academic. Increasing the resilience of our students and children is a great buffer to the adverse effects of cyberbullying and online predators who may affect their emotional stability.
Let us protect our children, our family, and friends in proactive ways.
Take care. Be safe.
Dr Nakhid-Chatoor is a clinical and educational psychologist, and immediate past President of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP).