June 4, 2014

Ciaran Tiemey discovers it is not harmful to bring up topic of suicide with a person having a tough time It is probably the question none of us ever want to ask a friend, colleague, or family member. And yet, as a group of about 40 of us discovered at a Galway hotel last week, it is the exact question which can save a life.

"Are you suicidal?" For many of us, in the wake of an unprecedented number of tragedies in the city and county in recent weeks, it's a question which hardly bears thinking about.

Console, the national suicide prevention and bereavement support charity, brought people from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages together at the Clayton Hotel. They had all registered for a three-hour course which each person in the room hoped would go some way towards changing their lives and those of the people around them.

There was a nervous, tense atmosphere in the room before the course started. Each person was present to learn and talk about an issue which has devastated families- and communities in Galway city and county in recent weeks and months.

The timing of the course seemed all the more poignant given that at least five suicides were recorded in the county the previous weekend. A senior Garda based in Ballinasloe warned only last week that it is now the biggest threat facing communities across the West of Ireland – and that there needs to be change throughout our society to tackle the problem.

By 10pm, as the course concluded, the transformation in the room was amazing.

People who had been silent and apprehensive at the start of the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) course were suddenly delighted.

How to ask the question that could save a life Paul Kelly, founder of Console, opened the course by talking about the death of his own 21-year old sister, Sharon, which prompted him to set up the organisation in 2002. Amid the pain and grief which followed his sister's death, her family members kept asking themselves and each other why she had taken her own life.

Sharon was about to start a new life in Australia, and gave away her most valuable possessions, when she took the decision which devastated her family's lives.

"We would have understood why if she had chronic depression. Her friends used to come and confide in her. I saw the impact which suicide had at first hand. We kept asking how we could have missed this. All of a sudden, I felt I did not know my younger sister," said Paul.

He told the participants that, had he undertaken the QPR course, he might have spotted the warning signs. Paul's remark- able, heart-felt honesty relating to his own family's tragic experience immediately impressed the participants and put them at ease.

He then guided them through the process of learning how to spot the risk factors, such as the break-up of a relationship, the loss of a job, trouble with the Gardai, or expulsion from school or college, which can cause a crisis in a person's life.

The course shows that there is no such thing as a suicidal "type" and that it is not harmful to bring up the topic with a person who is going through a tough time.

Paul said it often came as a huge relief to a suicidal person if a colleague, friend, or loved-one came forward and asked them straight out if they had considered ending their own life. Some people just need someone to confide in, to listen to their cry for help.

"We all experience crisis in our lives," said Paul. "The important thing is not to get stuck there. The burden can be lifted when a ques- tion is asked. If people in crisis get die help they need, they will probably never be suicidal again. Suicide prevention is everybody's business." Alcohol and substance abuse are other factors which can lead a person going through atemporary crisis to make a devastating decision and, as the evening progressed, partici-pants were literally taught how to ask the precise question to save a life.

Paul said k did not take "rocket science" to come to the help of a troubled colleague,which is why the QPR course is aimed at everyone in the community – teenagers,.

sports dub members, co-workers, and family members.

Console believe that QPR could make a huge difference if it could be rolled out to schools, colleges, work-places and sports clubs across Co Galway. It has already been completed by the members of the Connacht Rugby squad, whose reaction was hugely positive.

People can often be very hard on themselves in the wake of a tragic death, such asteenagers who are told that a friend intends to end it all in confidence and are asked not to tell an adult. Teenagers who use the tools set out in the QPR course are shown that it is ok to get adult help.

The course teaches young people that good friends don't keep deadly secrets.

Through videos and talks, participants in the QPR course are shown how to ask questions, be persistent, and to talk to people in crisis, alone at first. Often it is just a matter of listening and giving someone time to talk, before ensuring they get the help they require.

Paul said that suicidal people did not want to die, but rather to end the pain.

"It is a very difficult question to ask somebody. Do I want to be asked that question?But it can make a difference. Research has proven that bringing it up in conversation doesn't put the idea in somebody's head.

There is help, hope, and great support out there. QPR is so practical," said Paul.

Those who take part in die three-hour course are given the confidence to persuade a friend or colleague to enter a 'safety agreement", to ensure they do not harm themselves or take alcohol or drugs until they receive help.

Participants are told what not to say, although the most important thing is to open up a conversation with (and listen to) someone they feel is lacking in hope. The aim of the QPR course is to plant die seeds of hope in those who are in despair.

Often, people don't feel equipped or qualified to talk to a loved-one in despair. But the course shows the importance of intervening when there is a real risk to someone's life.

QPR equips them to make dear to friends and loved-ones how much people want them to stay alive and to stay part of their lives. By the end of the three-hour course, every person in the room felt they were better equipped to deal with Galway's suicide crisis.

"I was overwhelmed by the response and the fact that so many people turned up tonight, to learn about QPR and about the suicide prevention training programme which we hope will give people the skill set to ask that vital question," said Paul Kelly afterwards.

"It equips participants to ask people if they are in crisis and to give them the support and referral they need. It was fantastic and the audience was a cross-section of the community as well, which was really wonderful. I am really delighted. I hope it wiD make a difference. If s all about saving lives at the end of the day." He said the QPR course is all about human empathy, compassion, and being "truly present" with a friend or family member in need. It gives people the confidence to ask a difficult question and to persuade a person in crisis to get the help they need.

"Often, people are frightened of the answer. If the person says they are thinking of taking their own life, especially if they are a family member, it's something we don't want to comprehend.

The enormity of it, that a loved one could be thinking that way," he said.

"But this course teaches you that that vital question could save a life. That's what it's about, really, and having the courage to ask that question. I know it's a difficult question. But we are hoping tonight, from the training that we have given, that people will have a bit more confi- dence and the skills to do that."

In Co Galway alone, 31 people took their own lives in 2013. Last week, Supt Gerry Roche of Galway East Life Support (GELS) said the issue needed to be highlighted and society needed to change. The stigma associated with mental health also needs to be tackled.

The Console national helpline receives over 3,000 calls each month. Because of the extent of the problem, Console now hope to find a sponsor to roll out the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) programme to schools, workplaces, dubs and community groups across Galway city and county.

Recently, the entire Connacht Rugby squad completed the three hour QPR 'gatekeeper' training programme. It mixes videos, powerpoint presentatio
ns, and interaction with participants, It challenges participants to notice those who are to pain, approach, ques- tion, and give them hope.

The response from the rugby players and their coaches was fantastic, according to Console founder Paul Kelly.

"People automatically assume, because professional rugby players are strong, macho, strapping men that they don't encounter difficulties in their lives, but the truth is that they do. we all do," he told the Tribune.

"It was great to train up those players and give them the skills, so that they can support one another and be able to help other people as well. It teaches men to keep an eye out for people they train with and in the wider community," Margaret Tierney of Console Galway says it would be great if the funds were available to roll out the QPR programme across schools and sports clubs throughout Co Galway.

"I want to stop the next suicide and I want to do everything to my power to make sure that every young person and adult has access to this training," she said this week.

Ms Tierney said the people who took part in last week's QPR course were"blown away" by it. They fete they had learned important skills, going forward with their lives.

"I would like to see this course being made available to every GAA club, soccer dub, rugby club, school and work-place in the county. Recognising the warning signs and learning the skills to help save a life is something everyone should learn," she added.

Originally published: Galway City Tribune, Friday, May 30th.