Therapist: Talking about suicide takes courage; listen and don’t pass judgement

Gilbert Contreras, a family therapist with Coconino County speaks to staff at Hopi Jr/Sr High about suicide prevention. (Stan Bindell/NHO)

Gilbert Contreras, a family therapist with Coconino County speaks to staff at Hopi Jr/Sr High about suicide prevention. (Stan Bindell/NHO)

POLACCA, Ariz. — Gilbert Contreras, family therapist with Coconino County, spoke to the staff at Hopi Jr/Sr High School March 7 about suicide prevention.

The professional development comes less than a month after a Hopi High student committed suicide.

Contreras said one of his heroes is former Vice President Joe Biden, regardless of his politics, because Biden spoke about suicide. Contreras said talking about suicide takes courage because there is a stigma attached to it.

“The objective is to be alert to suicide,” he said.

Contreras said Coconino County has one of the highest rates of completed suicides in Arizona. He said three ways to prevent suicide are to have mental health resources, medical coverage and substance abuse counseling.

He said one in 20 people think about suicide in any two week period. 

“Most people want to help people stay alive,” he said.

Contreras said most people considering suicide do not want to die, but they don’t want to live anymore because they want to escape something. He said indecisiveness gives people a chance to intervene with those who are considering suicide.

He said sometimes people miss, dismiss or avoid suicide conversations and said SAFEtalk gives people alternatives to suicide. SAFE stands for Suicide Alertness For Everyone.

Contreras said people need to TALK, which stands for tell, ask, listen and keep safe. However, he did tell teachers they cannot promise secrecy to students who talk about suicide in confidentiality, because as teachers they are mandated reporters. He said teachers, however, should be discrete.

Contreras said some schools, such as one in Leupp, said they do not necessarily call police with suicide issues because it can take police up to three hours to respond. By that time the issue is often concluded.

Thomas Irwin, music teacher at Hopi Jr/Sr High School, said suicide is a huge concern in isolated communities.

“We need to have this conversation and we need to have it more than just at school,” he said.

Contreras said Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) from Flagstaff have more detailed trainings about suicide prevention.

“NACA can help with policies and procedures,” he said.

He said schools need to have improved policies and communication about clear levels of intervention for suicide prevention.

“We don’t want to point fingers. We want solutions,” he said.

Contreras said if a teacher or anyone comes across someone who they think is considering suicide they need to be very direct about asking them if they are considering suicide. They need to be told that their life is precious and they need to get to the right resources that will give them help.

He said the most important part is for the person to listen to the student who is considering suicide. He said the listener should be sensitive and non-judgmental.

He said it is not helpful for the listener to be judgmental, angry, negative, panicked, giving advice or acting impatient.

“Be a good listener. Let them tell their story without judgment,” he said.

Contreras said people need to be alert for suicides and said there was a man pacing back and forth at the railroad station in Flagstaff — nobody asked him why he was pacing or if the man had a problem. The man was killed when he put himself in front of a train.

“Make sure you have the connections to help, and fight for the connections to help if you don’t have them,” he told the teachers.

Contreras said sometimes those considering suicide just need a friend.

“We don’t have enough friends. We have a lonely society. The internet keeps us from interacting,” he said.

Contreras said the teachers need to work with the administrators and community to solve suicide issues.

“This is not a school problem, but a community problem. If you try to solve it yourself you will fail,” he said.

One resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK8255.

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