Speaker offers tips for handling 911 suicide calls
There is no question that fielding a call that comes into a public-safety answering point is one of the most stressful situations a human being can encounter, given the life-and-death nature of many calls. Arguably, the most stressful of these involve those who are contemplating suicide. And the sad truth is that such calls only are going to increase, according to George Barber, a principal of Tri-Harbour Training Associates, who spoke on the topic last month at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference.
During his session, Barber tossed out numerous statistics that underscore the growing problem. For example, the suicide rate among returning veterans is 40% higher than that of the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8 million Americans had suicidal thoughts last year. Worldwide, 1 million people commit suicide each year — it is the 7th leading cause of death for males and the 15th leading cause of death for females. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic of all is that 25 people attempt suicide for every one that succeeds.
There is a long list of factors that push people over the edge. They include depression, retirement or job loss, medical issues, substance abuse and social isolation. Age also is a key factor, on both ends of the spectrum. While the elderly are prone to suicidal thoughts, so too are adolescents. According to Barber, adolescent suicides have increased by 30% over the last three decades.
"Twenty percent of teenagers have been diagnosed with depression — one out of five," said Barber, who recently retired as high-school teacher and was part of the team that developed the crisis-response plan at Sachem North High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. "And depression is a major cause of suicide. When you put both pieces together, you have some real problems."
So, 911 call-takers need to get ready. Barber — who also serves as fire commissioner for Suffolk County, N.Y. — offered a few suggestions for what call-takers can do, if they field a call from someone who is threatening suicide. First and foremost is to keep the person talking, he said.
"If they're talking to you, they're not doing something else to themselves," said Barber, who added that the idea is to keep the person talking long enough for help to arrive. "You have two jobs: provide information to the responders, and stabilize the situation."
In trying to stabilize the situation, what a call-taker doesn't do is just as important as what he does do, according to Barber. Call-takers shouldn't try to negotiate with the caller, nor should they be judgmental. Perhaps most important, call-takers never should promise what they can't deliver.
"Don't tell them that it's going to be all right — because you don't know if it will be," Barber said.
Once the incident is over, it is vitally important to debrief, according to Barber. Perhaps the most important aspect of that is the realization that call-takers are not responsible for other people's actions, nor are they able to control them, Barber said.
"Know that you did the best you could with the cards that you were dealt. … If they didn't survive, it's not your fault. But that's easier said than done — I realize that," he said.