My husband and a longtime friend will often sit and reminisce about the "good old days." One story that always brings laughs was about a time when they went canoeing on the Brule River in Wisconsin.
The friend, having never been in a canoe before, was a bit nervous and unsteady. It wasn't long before he started to maneuver his long lanky body around to get comfortable. As he tried to stand, the canoe began to rock. In mass hysteria, the friend flailed his arms like a windmill in a hurricane and the canoe flipped. As my husband was calmly collecting their cooler, paddles and belongings that were gently floating down the river, the friend began splashing frantically and announcing to the world that he didn't know how to swim. The scene has been described as a child trying to baptize a cat. After finally catching his breath from laughing at the sight, my husband shouts, "Hey big guy -- stand up! It's only knee deep!"
While the story ends happily and nothing gets bruised besides a little ego, the fear of drowning is all too real. In the middle of a hot July day, when the sun is beating down and melting everything in sight, sometimes the only thing that will do is a nice refreshing swim. This is the time of year when we are warned about water safety, lifejackets and what hazards to avoid. We hear stories about those that just slip under and don't "flail around" or shout for help. These stories instill fear; the tragedy no one saw coming.
Lifeguards are trained to watch for signs of distress. They are looking for the subtle things that others may not notice; someone out of breath, silent, over their head and struggling to stay afloat. Maybe a friend is not as fast or strong as the others but is determined to keep up even though their body is fatigued. A trained lifeguard can spot these things and can often stop tragedy in its tracks. They might call the person in distress back to the shore, ask them to take a break, check in to see how they really are doing. They might ask them to stay in the shallow end for just a little while or to let go of heavy things that are bringing them down. They might offer a life jacket or a floating device. They keep a closer watch, are vigilant and survey the scene.
This "lifeguard" analogy applies to suicide intervention. Sudden death may seem to happen out of the blue, but we often find that there were some warning signs, we just didn't know what to look for. With proper training, we can all learn not only when a friend or loved one is having thoughts of suicide, but also what to do to help keep them safe for right now. The unknown is scary, and when it happens close to home it can be shocking. No one ever thinks that it could happen in their family or to their friends. There is a reassurance when the thoughts of suicide are kept at arm's length. There is deniability that makes us feel safe, but in reality, we all must be vigilant and watch out for each other.
Suicide happens fast. If we suspect someone is having trouble "staying afloat", we must ask questions to find out where they are at emotionally. We must be prepared to listen. We must remember that even strong swimmers get tired, and it's our responsibility to throw them a lifeline or find someone who can. We must remember that there are life-saving professionals we can call on in emergencies. It is OK for us to get involved, and it is OK to remove accessible things that could be used to end their life. It is also OK for us to ask for help. It is not expected that we always know exactly what to do.
Here's hoping that in times of turbulence we can all experience the water as only knee deep, and we find the courage to stand. For more information on how to bring a suicide prevention training to your work or organization, contact me at (218) 441-4565.