Right Now, What Will Keep You Safe?

Sue Ann Atkerson squareI’m sitting in RI International’s third-ever ASIST training with eighteen employees from across our Arizona programs.   We don’t know what to expect, but our facilitators Mike Zeeb (pictured below) and Terrence Smithers quickly put us at ease:  not only are we going to learn how to confidently help a person at risk of suicide, but we are about to join the ranks of the more than 1,000,000 people who have been trained worldwide.  ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) is one of the most widely-used, evidence-based suicide intervention programs in the world.

ASIST is part of RI International’s commitment to equip our workforce with the skills, knowledge and supports needed to effectively and confidently work with persons at risk of suicide, and to increase the safety and well-being of the persons we serve. Anyone can take the class, regardless of training or experience; it’s founded on the premise that any one person has the capability of making a difference in the life of someone else.

A couple staff members express confusion and even fear, stating that in the past they were taught only to ask about whether someone wanted to harm themselves, but not to ask directly about suicide or to even use the word.  This is one of the biggest myths surrounding suicide:  that talking about suicide might give the person an idea they don’t already have.  Studies show the opposite: if the person really was thinking of suicide, there’s often a sense of relief in having it out in the open.  And if they weren’t thinking about death, you haven’t planted a seed but instead conveyed your caring and concern.

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Mike Zeeb, RI International

Lastly, yes–this IS a culture shift for RI International!  We are a behavioral health agency entrusted to assist others in overcoming the limitations of serious mental illness; as such, we must commit to creating safety for our staff and the persons we serve. We’ve always been focused on the broader reasons for living (hope, meaning and connection), but it’s time we also attended to the feelings of pain and suicide.

Over the course of the two-day interactive session, we spend time together in the larger group as well as in smaller break-out sessions.  In our small groups we learn that nearly everyone has been touched by suicide in some manner, and we are encouraged to share only what we are comfortable with.  We learn how our personal feelings about suicide might help or hinder our effectiveness with others.  We learn about the model, and practice the steps through role plays and discussion.

It’s powerful stuff, and I am blown away by the level of genuine compassion I observe in my classmates.  What an amazing team we have!  At the end of day two we receive our certificates, a wallet-sized reference guide to help us remember the steps in times of need, and stickers to let others know we are trained to help. I feel my own confidence lift; the opportunity to practice these skills with others has been invaluable. As my classmates receive their certificates one by one, I reflect that our team and those we serve are in good hands.

We all have been affected by suicide in some way (a loved one, a friend, a co-worker).  Our survey of the US behavioral health workforce demonstrated that more than one in four who work in public mental health have had a person for whom they were responsible die of suicide. We might know someone who is struggling right now.  Maybe it’s you.  Either way, you owe it to yourself to sign up for this life-saving workshop today.

At RI International, we are embarking on a campaign to train 500 of our nearly 900 employees by the end of 2016, including executives, administrative staff, and direct service providers. Are you in?


Zero Suicide: An International Declaration for Better Healthcare includes Ten Steps to Start championing a program in your organization.

The first step is creating a steering committee and drafting an implementation plan, that includes a multi-year commitment. Ensure inclusion of persons with lived experience.

Sue Ann Atkerson, LPC, is Chief Operating Officer at RI International. She is partnering with leaders across the country to craft our organization’s Zero Suicide work plan.

To view more of the Ten Steps to Start, download the full list here.

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Originally posted on  at davidwcovington.com

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