December 20, 2018

By John Giampaolo

As a child, I watched my brother struggle for years. Mental health simply wasn’t a topic discussed much in the 1970s and 1980s, and my parents had few resources to turn to for help. I was 21 years old when my brother took his life; I understand firsthand what families go through and the impact of losing a loved one to suicide.
It’s what led me to my current role, working with organizations in North Carolina to promote mental health resources available in our area. A large part of my work involves training first responders and other community members, through programs such as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) and Mental Health First Aid, about how to recognize and respond to people having a mental health crisis. 

Learn How to Identify the Warning Signs

In the training, participants learn how to recognize when someone may be at risk forsuicide. Sometimes the signs are overt, like when a person says they want to kill themselves or starts giving away their most valued possessions. Quite often, though, the signs are less direct.
In that case, we recommend keeping an eye out for certain behavioral clues. If you notice someone has lost interest in activities they typically enjoy or is neglecting their personal grooming habits, for example, they may be depressed. If someone begins to drink alcohol, use drugs, or shows a significant change in their eating habits, they may be at risk for a crisis. Alternatively, it also important to take note if someone suddenly seems at peace after feeling low for a while because it’s possible they’ve made a plan or decision to take their life.
Over time, this increased awareness can even help you develop a “gut feeling” to sense when people may be facing a crisis, giving you even more opportunity to intervene before the situation escalates. 

Learn How to Talk to Someone Considering Suicide 

Suicide can be a hard topic to talk about, which is why I teach participants how to talk to someone contemplating suicide. Using encouraging language creates a safe place for the person in crisis to talk about their concerns. For example: Asking the direct question, “Are you thinking about taking your life?” instead of the more judgmental, “You’re not thinking of taking your life, are you?” Using encouraging language rather than judgment or stigma can give someone the opportunity to open up about what they’re facing and feeling. 

Learn How to Be Empathetic to Their Situation  

It’s important to understand the perspective of the individual in crisis. For example, I often conduct a short exercise asking participants to identify their “2 o’clock in the morning people.” These are the trusted individuals you can call any time of day or nightand they’ll be there to listen and provide supportive.
Then I ask them to consider the people in our community who may not have a 2 a.m. person in their lives. These individuals may need to rely on professional resources when it comes to having an empathetic listener to reach out to. They also need to feel safe talking about their situation without facing judgment. Plus, knowing there are trained members in the community who are ready and willing to help can make it easier for someone to feel comfortable reaching out. 
If you’re a first responder, teacher or local community service provider, becoming trained in suicide prevention can make a big impact on your community. This type of training can give you the skills to understand how to identify the warning signs, know how to respond in a helpful, nonjudgmental and deescalating way to someone in crisis. It can also help you develop a running list of resources available in yourarea that you can refer people to in their time of need. 
Conducting suicide prevention trainings and providing individuals and members of the community with the tools to help others has helped me manage my own feelings related to my brother’s suicide. Together, we are helping people like my brother. And, I know personally how important it is for survivors who have lost loved ones to have support, too. In this small but important way, I can use my family’s experience to help others.   
But I’ll be honest; we have much more work to do. We need to keep the conversation going so everyone in our communities feel they can talk freely about their mental health. Please consider becoming more knowledgeable about suicide prevention—sooner, rather than later. It could change someone’s life.

As an experienced Community Engagement Specialist for Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, John Giampaolo has dedicated much of his career to improving suicide prevention awareness. In North Carolina, he helped organize the Stanly County Suicide Prevention Task Force to unite the community and raise awareness. Giampaolo’s strong community and social services background helps him work with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce stigma and open access to mental health resources. He is also skilled at crisis intervention and case management. Giampaolo received his Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology from Florida International University.

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