Ask the right questions to a suicidal person

Published 9:09 am Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Column: Maiden Voyage, by Sherry Westland

Hi! I’m Sherry Westland. I’m fairly new to Albert Lea, having remarried and moved here seven years ago from California. I have grown to love our community and now call this my home. I have two sons and two beautiful granddaughters, and I work here locally at my husband Stan’s CPA Firm. I am also the reigning Ms. Sr. Minnesota America. I will be representing our great state in October at the Senior America Pageant in New Jersey.

Sherry Westland

Sherry Westland

I’m excited to be an occasional columnist for the Albert Lea Tribune and to have the opportunity to give my perspective and opinions from time to time.

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I am motivated by the loss of my son to suicide just two years ago. Not wanting my tragedy to become your tragedy, it’s my hope that I can offer some information that will help others. I’m not an expert but want to contribute what I have learned in the area of suicide awareness. Because suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15 to 24 years, the second among persons aged 25 to 34 years, the fourth among persons aged 35 to 54 years, and the eighth among persons 55 to 64 years, it deserves our attention.

Perhaps you have observed the rise in statistics of people committing suicide, or maybe you know someone who has talked about doing so, or worse, know someone who has gone through with it.

There is hope for the living, and knowledge is power and vital to accomplishing my goal of mental health awareness.

One of the best accomplishments I have made since my son’s death, is that I have become QPR certified. QPR stands for “Question, Persuade, Refer.”) Anyone can learn these three steps to help prevent suicide.

Just like CPR, QPR is an emergency response to someone in crisis and can save lives. It’s a certification that can be done online and only takes about an hour, a little more time if you read the extra materials. I highly recommend this course to everyone.

One thing I learned is that if someone is talking about committing suicide, you need to take them very seriously, listen and not condemn. It is best if you can be with them in person, but you can also help by phone. The person usually doesn’t want to take their life, but they have reached their threshold of pain and are too tired to help themselves. They only see one way out.

The most important question you can ask is “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” not “You aren’t thinking of committing suicide, are you?” These are two very different questions.

Also, ask if they have a plan to commit suicide. If they answer “yes,” you need to persuade them to let you get them help. Depending on the urgency, if they say no, you need to get them help without their permission. A suicidal person urgently needs to see a doctor or mental health professional. In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or 911.

Born of the loss of my son, I developed what I call my Love L.I.F.E. Campaign.

L.I.F.E. stands for:

L: Love life through overcoming.

I: Increasing mental health and suicide awareness.

F: Family grief support.

E: Embrace hope for a new beginning. It’s important to address the areas of education, awareness, support and hope.

There are many myths and stigmas associated with depression and suicide. Due to the rise in suicides, it is necessary to bring public awareness, education and resources to the forefront. Although suicide stems from mental health issues, society treats it differently than cancer, or other illnesses, which is how it should be treated.

My son and I were so very close, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.

In a future article, I will be sharing some basic signs to look for and actions you can take if you are concerned about someone. In my next few columns, I would like to address other difficult issues related to suicide and depression, as well as my Love L.I.F.E. Campaign.

Because most people don’t know how to respond to someone who talks about the unthinkable (I know I didn’t), there are some simple-yet-vital bits of information that can help us all determine how to respond to the clinically depressed.

Mental health, depression and suicide are tough-but-necessary topics. Be informed so you are able to help others, it starts first by being aware of the people around you. You never know when the situation might arise. If you’re prepared, you can ask a question and save a life. It’s something we can all learn to do.

I look forward to sharing more about mental health awareness in upcoming columns.


Albert Lea resident Sherry Westland is Ms. Minnesota in the Ms. Senior America Pageant and holds the title of Senior Ms. Global United.