Creating a 'suicide safer' community

Photo: The Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee's Cathy Butler and Sharon Berry Ross. Carl Hnatyshun, Postmedia News. 

For over 20 years, the Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee has worked to promote awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding suicide, while providing education and resources for those contemplating suicide or those who survived a suicide attempt. The committee has also worked to make connections and foster relationships between individuals and community organizations, trying to help reduce the gaps in services that exist for those seeking help.

A community network made up of a wide variety of partner agencies, the committee has also spearheaded the implementation of educational programs, known as safeTALKs – training programs designed to better equip individuals and organizations while helping them develop their own suicide prevention strategies.

To that end, the committee on Aug. 21 will be holding a three-hour safeTALK workshop. The three-hour session will provide members of the public with a set of invaluable tools to help them identify people who have thoughts of suicide as well as connect them to intervention resources that might well save many lives.

The training session, taking place at the St. Clair Child & Youth Services office in Point Edward beginning at 6 p.m., is open to everyone 15 and older and will focus on identification of those in distress rather than direct intervention, said committee volunteer and safeTALK trainer Cathy Butler. The training will be broadly-based, she said, because suicide is so pervasive among so many groups on our society.

“The programs targets everybody over 15, absolutely everybody,” Butler said. “Because suicide affects everyone – every culture, every age, every religion, we try to keep a really broad focus and empower as many people as we can.”

“Our mandate is around education, awareness, reducing stigma – those are really the key mandates and we provide resources to the community,” added Sharon Berry Ross, also a volunteer and a safeTALK trainer with the committee. “We do things like Artwalk, we do Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10 and at least once a month or more we're doing these safeTALK trainings throughout the county.”

While the Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee has provided training for community groups in the past – including the Bluewater Bridge Authority, Lambton College students, camp counsellors and service clubs – the idea to provide a free session for the public is something the group hopes will further raise awareness about suicide prevention, Ross said.

“The training is really meant for everybody to raise awareness. SafeTALK actually stands for Suicide Awareness For Everyone,” she said. “We're really committed to making sure that people understand that suicide occurs across the lifespan, that there are a lot of groups that are vulnerable. But the more foundations we have on a day-to-day basis, the better our community will be equipped to reach out when these people need help.”

“Our goal is to have a suicide safer community,” Butler added. “What that means is having a community where people with thoughts of suicide feel safe to talk about and know that they can get the help they need. We're trying to raise awareness that it's okay to talk about suicide – in fact, it's good suicide prevention to talk openly and directly. Good mental health is also good suicide prevention.”

“Sometimes we call these (training sessions) suicide first aid,” she continued. “The idea is that you come upon a situation, you recognize that there's a threat to life happening, thoughts of suicide. And then you know what to do – you learn how to listen, how to talk to the person, how to ask them directly if they're having thoughts of suicide and if they say 'yes', how to connect them to help. And we teach people what help there is out there in the community. Which is very empowering.”

After years of providing suicide prevention training to people across Lambton County and speaking with partner agencies, Butler said that while there have been a number of high-profile recent tragedies in the county, the communication between agencies and the increase in resources have meant that there is reason for optimism looking ahead.

“As we talk more openly about mental health and suicide, we create a safer net for people, because we're paying attention and we're noticing the people around us,” she said. “And we also start to realize how we can help as laypeople, which is what safeTALK teaches.”

A greater awareness and a reduction in the stigma surrounding even talking about suicide has created tangible gains in the community, Ross said.

“Two years ago, both the school boards developed a suicide prevention strategy, so there's actually a strategy in place if a child in the school system is thinking about suicide. And that's huge,” she said. “What we're want to do is keep encouraging all these connections and all this networking so that people know there are places to go.”

“The other thing is that we try to work it from many sides,” added Butler. “We deal with suicide awareness, suicide prevention and education, equipping people to actually intervene, but we're also looking now at grief support, which is actually important for suicide prevention. When a community has been impacted by suicide, helping those people with their mental health and their grief support is critically important. And we have partnered with organizations who provide those services – like St. Joseph's Hospice. We have a new grief support program for those who have been impacted by suicide come up.”

“That came through our committee,” Ross said. “As we kept looking at what were the gaps, grief counselling was an ongoing issue. So several organizations have come together and have started this initiative. Which will be specifically for survivors of suicide. Which has never happened before in our community.”

While both said they are hopeful for the future, the Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee will always have a role in the community to assist and provide resources for people struggling with suicide or dealing with its aftermath.

“You know, one death is always one too many,” Ross said. “We still have to stay the course. You can never say 'we're done'. We're always building capacity, we're always encouraging people to talk about mental health and suicide. And that will never stop.”

For more information about the Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee, visit

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