Being Crisis Prepared

  • November 01, 2023

Dear Advy,

I recently had a friend that works outside of the legal profession tell me about a colleague of hers that threatened to commit suicide at the office. My friend was traumatized by the incident because she had no idea what to do. She went to her director and quickly realized that even they didn’t know what process to follow either. Call 9-1-1? Provide the number to a hotline? Thankfully, the colleague in question did eventually get help and the crisis was averted but I quickly realized that I don’t think anyone in my firm would have the first clue how to handle this situation. It is one thing to offer help if you sense that someone is depressed or anxious but I’m pretty sure some sort of immediate action should be taken if someone threatens to commit suicide. What should be done if I should ever be in the same position?

Being Crisis Prepared

Dear Being Crisis Prepared,

You may have seen the recent National Study on the Health & Wellness Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, which highlighted that 24% of legal professionals have had suicidal thoughts since starting their professional practice, it’s quite possible that any of us could find ourselves in the situation your friend was in. Kudos to you for proactively seeking out information so you are prepared to support a colleague, client, or anyone else in your life experiencing a mental health crisis.

It may not always be apparent that someone is thinking about suicide, and the first step in helping someone is to recognize the warning signs. They may include:

  • Expressing thoughts or feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Sudden changes in behaviour, mood or appearance
  • Increased substance use
  • Seeking out means to self-harm, such as pills or weapons
  • Self-harm or reckless behaviour

If you notice any of these signs, or as in your friend’s case the person communicates they are thinking about suicide, it’s critical to take their behaviour and feelings seriously and address the situation promptly. Initiating a conversation about suicide can be difficult, but it is necessary. The goals of your conversation are to offer support, assess the urgency of the situation, keep the person safe, and recommend or seek out supports to help the person.

Here are some steps that can help guide your conversation:

  1. Tell the person that you care and are concerned about them and describe the behaviours that have caused you to be concerned. Be prepared that the person may not want to talk with you in which case offer to help find someone else they can talk to, preferably someone who has knowledge in navigating this kind of situation.
  2. Unless the person has already told you, the only way you can assess the urgency of the situation is to directly ask if they are thinking about suicide. Being empathetic and providing them with undivided attention is more important than worrying about the exact right thing to say. Encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts by asking open-ended questions; avoid interjecting, judging, minimizing their feelings or offering immediate solutions. Although it is common to feel distressed at what the person might disclose, it will be most reassuring to the person if you appear calm and confident.
  3. If you believe there is an immediate risk of the person acting on their suicidal thoughts, ensure they are not left alone and work to keep them safe by removing any means they have to harm themselves. If the person refuses to remove a weapon or seek help, depending on the situation you may need to call 911 or a crisis centre or encourage the person to go to their nearest emergency department.
  4. Let the person know that help is available and encourage that they, or you on their behalf, contact their doctor or mental health professional, a crisis centre, or other support. It may be helpful to remember that you are not a substitute for a mental health professional and your role is to provide support until the person can receive professional help or the crisis is resolved. If the person does not know who to contact, Talk Suicide Canada is a valuable resource that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Take a minute to store their toll-free number, 1-833-456-4566, and text, 45645, in your phone. This simple act can help you save a life.

Supporting someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis can be a challenging and emotionally demanding task. Ensure you take time to prioritize your well-being by seeking out whatever supports and self-care help you manage your stress and emotions.

Maybe consider having some workplace mental health champions at your firm that can be prepared to support someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Mental Health First Aid training is available through the Mental Health Commission of Canada and your lawyer assistance program may offer similar training or resources.

Be well,

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