BY MICHAEL RICONDA
VALLEY COTTAGE – The lingering impact of the death of celebrated comedian and actor Robin Williams has given many pause to consider the reality of mental illness and suicide in today’s world. Now, with assistance from the Mental Health Association of Rockland (MHA), county residents can educate themselves and act to prevent similar tragedies.
With support from Sen. David Carlucci, the MHA is offering free training in “safeTALK,” a program developed by the suicide prevention agency LivingWorks Education which allows users to identify and engage those who are suffering from suicidal thoughts with the goal of offering support and connecting the person to professionals.
The goal of the program is to eliminate fears of raising the topic, which can often further isolate those already struggling with suicidal thoughts. Instead, the training encourages healthy, direct and non-judgmental talk about the subject.
“What we find is that people tend to feel either very relieved that someone has opened that door to the conversation or grateful that someone cared enough to ask,” safeTALK trainer and Executive Vice President of the Mental Health Association Sonia Wagner said.
At the same time, Wagner stressed the safeTALK model is not a substitute for professional care. Instead, its users are encouraged to guide those vulnerable to suicide to others who can offer more comprehensive treatment.
Trainees are taught how to recognize the basic warning signs of suicide. Among those warning sings are people suggesting they feel hopeless or like a burden on others, severe sleep disruptions such as insomnia, a history of suicide attempts and a real or perceived loss of honor such as a loss of a job, end of a relationship or discharge from the armed forces.
Suicide is not only a prevalent issue, but also one that often remains hidden until it is too late. About 1,600 New York residents committed suicide last year, though the figure is likely much more due to tendencies to under-report suicides as “accidents.”
“In any given couple of weeks, it’s estimated that about five percent of the community has experienced suicidal thinking, so we know from some of the losses we’ve had in the county from the bridge, from people who have recently been hospitalized and from people in the general community that suicide is a huge risk for many individuals,” Wagner stated.
On the state level, Carlucci, who chairs the Senate’s Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee, hopes to expand the use of the safeTALK model throughout New York State. SafeTALK and similar programs developed by LivingWorks are used internationally. A similar program known as ASIST has been implemented by the U.S. Army.
One such effort in the New York Legislature is a bill which allows the creation of suicide prevention curriculum which can be taught as an optional supplement in schools.
“We think this is something that could be a model statewide,” Carlucci said. “We’re thankful that passed the Senate and the Assembly and we’re waiting for the Governor to sign it”
With state support, the positive impact of such efforts could expand statewide. Thus far, Wagner reports feedback in Rockland has been “enormous,” with many trainees relating to the MHA that the training helped them recognize and assist people only days after completion of the program.
“We’ve had people from all different walks of life coming to us after taking the training and saying, ‘You’re making it possible for me to talk to someone I’ve been worried about for a while.’”
The training will be offered at the Mental Health Association in Valley Cottage on September 10. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. and the class itself will take place from 9 a.m. to noon. Registration can also be done over the phone by calling the MHA at (845) 267-2172, extension 296.