Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 31, 2014

Teens are on the front line

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — “I don’t want to say anything inappropriate,” the young girl said gently. Looking into her kind face, it was hard to imagine she could.  “No, it’s fine .. .whatever you want to say ... ” are the words I vaguely remember offering in response.

I had just finished presenting with a colleague the 90-minute suicide prevention training program, QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer. I’ve discovered trainers often find themselves in delicate conversations with someone who is hurting or concerned about a loved one. I gave the young girl a nod, encouraging her to finish her thought.

“I think your daughter would be proud of what you are doing,” she said.

I’m usually never embarrassed to cry in public. Frankly, I figure I deserve to. Still, I had never cried during QPR training because I focus on the importance of the message and try to keep the personal emotions tucked away. In this case, however, after a quick hug and some mumbled words, I turned away and tried desperately to disappear up against a wall where no one would see the tears fall.

It was the first time our Davidson LifeLine trainers had taught QPR to an all high school age group. The QPR Institute prefers little more than a dozen people in each training session. We had more than two dozen students at the private school show up for training as school ended. We weren’t going to turn any away.

Teens are often at Ground Zero for mental and emotional upheaval. If they’ve been trained what to say, what to ask and how to react, they are empowered to help someone in crisis until an adult or a behavioral health care professional is available.

A young girl who attended the same training later said it was important for teens to be trained because if someone is suicidal they won’t go to a parent or an adult — they’ll tell a friend or peer. So teens need to know what to do. They are on the front lines.

And there are others on the front lines. Those who have literally been in combat are at risk — war veterans and military service personnel. Also, suicides are on the rise among older white males.

QPR is one of the steps community members anywhere can take to help. It is offered around the country, in every state. Mental health care experts and agencies categorize it as a “best practices” model and describe it as an “exemplary suicide risk reduction approach.” It is offered in both West Virginia and Virginia.

Our North Carolina town last year took it a step further, offering the QPR Gatekeepers Training to interested residents and professionals in various fields. About two dozen people went through the eight-hour course, learning how to teach QPR to others. Since then more than 150 people have taken the 90 minute QPR course.

Davidson, N.C. Police Chief Jeanne Miller calls it a “valuable tool” that the town “should continue to utilize.” She also points out that officers called to the scene of a suicide attempt will always call for a medic, referring the person to be hospitalized for assessment and treatment. QPR is only the first line of defense. Follow up is often required.

Davidson lost five residents to suicide in 2012, including my daughter. Although there were unfortunately numerous attempts in 2013, it appears no one died by their own hand intentionally. “I do not have any empirical evidence that correlates QPR to any drop in numbers,” said Chief Miller. “However, QPR and the out loud conversation, the ‘permission’ to discuss, is an important start.”

Some people may still be afraid to use the word out loud, to have it discussed in churches, classrooms, or public buildings because “won’t it plant a seed?” Experts say no. The Mayo Clinic reports on its website that, “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.”

“You can’t stop suicide,” a young person said to me recently. “You can never stop it completely.”

“That’s true,” I answered. “We know that better than anyone. But we can try to stop what we can. It’s called suicide prevention ... not suicide stopping. We can do our best to prevent it. And sharing it from our perspective and sharing our pain may have a greater impact. That’s why I do it.”

The young person agreed with me. Our personal story of pain can be useful prevention. But maybe I have another motivation now. Maybe there’s been another reason lingering in the periphery of my mind.

Maybe I was hoping the young girl’s comment is true: “I think your daughter would be proud of what you are doing.”

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at