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Family Support

SAFER’s Concerned Other Program

Natalee Popadiuk, PhD

Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (7), p. 37-38

“After my daughter made a suicide attempt, I was so worried, because I didn’t know what to do or how to best help her. After seeing a counsellor as part of SAFER’s Concerned Other program, I felt more confident in my abilities to see the warning signs and take the appropriate action needed to keep her safe.” —a mother in the SAFER Concerned Other Program

Imagine that your brother, girlfriend, or best friend is suicidal. Maybe they recently made a suicide attempt, or perhaps they disclosed to you that they are thinking about suicide. What impact would this have on you? What information would you need to help and support them?

Most people feel overwhelmed and uncertain when dealing with a loved one who is suicidal. Accessing up-to-date information about suicide prevention and receiving emotional support is, therefore, crucial. In fact, if you know the signs of worsening suicidal thoughts, you could help a loved one to connect with appropriate resources and put a solid safety plan in place. You could save a life.

Families supporting a loved one who is suicidal often have many needs that can be met with counselling. There is strong evidence to indicate that providing support and counselling to families is not only beneficial to the family, but also to the person who is struggling with a mental illness, which is associated with suicide in 90% of cases. Family support leads to better client and family outcomes and coping skills, a reduction in the use of hospital services, increased awareness among family members, reduced caregiver burden, and improved ability to support the ill person.

In May 2000, SAFER (Suicide Attempt Follow-up, Education and Research) staff identified a need to formally develop the Concerned Other Program based on feedback from community workshop participants, telephone consultation with family members, other professionals in the field, and survivors who had lost a loved one to suicide. The initial goals of the program were to support the concerned individual by 1) providing information on suicidal behaviour, 2) exploring options and resources to help the suicidal individual, and 3) developing more effective coping strategies to deal with the stress of the situation.

The Concerned Other Program provides an opportunity for participants to:

  • Discuss the suicidality of the loved one in safe surrounds

  • Explore their emotional needs and validate their concerns

  • Learn about depression, suicide prevention and safety plans

  • Learn how to check for suicidal thoughts of other family members/friends

  • Obtain practical coping skills and strategies

Clients in SAFER’s Concerned Other Program receive validation and reassurance that what they are experiencing is normal under the circumstances. Family members often need to work through their own feelings of anger, depression, grief and loss, especially when their loved one is chronically suicidal. Others find practical counselling support, such as skills training, coping strategies and crisis management interventions, to be most helpful.

The Concerned Other Program offers up to three individual face-to face counselling sessions at SAFER’s offices to Vancouver and Burnaby residents. As an additional service to those living in other areas of BC, SAFER counsellors provide telephone consultation to people concerned about a loved one. This means that a counsellor will provide information to the caller about suicide prevention strategies and local support resources

An important message for family members is for them to recognize the powerful and positive impact on the outcome that can occur for the suicidal individual when they are meaningfully involved in their care. When family members become aware of their role, boundaries, and needs, they are more likely to reach out for extra support and information.

There is a continued need for specialized counselling that assists family members to cope better with the stress of supporting suicidal individuals and to better help the person they love. If there are limited resources in the community, families of suicidal individuals could advocate for short-term counselling through the local hospital or mental health team. For rural and remote communities where there are only distant resources, families may use the Internet for information, accessing web- sites such as the Centre for Suicide Prevention or list-servs. Families may also choose to organize a local support group for families dealing with a loved one who is suicidal.

It is critical for counsellors and other health care professionals who work with suicidal clients in their practice, to engage in ongoing professional development to ensure they are adequately prepared to deal with the complex issues associated with suicide prevention and family involvement. Relevant strategies for working with caregivers include recognizing the emotional impact on the family, offering short-term individual and group counselling to family members, using collaborative approaches that build on the strengths a client already has, teaching coping and skill-building interventions, encouraging regular self-care and relaxation techniques, and building support networks for caregivers. Most important is the awareness that family members are often ignored or minimally involved in the treatment planning for suicidal individuals, and this can create additional stress and unnecessary negative experiences with professionals.

Family members concerned about a loved one’s suicidality are encouraged to reach out for their own counselling support. It is through helping yourself understand your role, boundaries, and emotional turmoil—plus learning more about suicide prevention strategies—that you will be in the best position to help your loved one through a suicidal crisis.

About the Author

Natalee is the Graduate Faculty Associate with the Counselling Psychology program at Simon Fraser University. Previously, she was the manager of SAFER, a suicide prevention agency within Vancouver Coastal Health, where she provided individual therapy, developed customized suicide prevention workshops, and offered consultation services to professionals in the field “

Vancouver or Burnaby residents dealing with a loved one who is suicidal: SAFER offers up to three in-person counselling sessions at no charge. Call 604-879-9251. If you live out of the catchment area, please contact SAFER for information on suicide prevention, emotional support, and local resources.

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