“The myths that surround suicide amount to codifications of denial
and plausible reasons to take no action when warning signs are
present. Compared to global warming, the reality of suicide is a
much more inconvenient truth.”
-Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.,
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute
Saving a Life as the Number One Priority
-Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
A few weeks after Dan was trained as a Gatekeeper, he sent me the
following story asking if his actions were appropriate. I asked for Dr.
Quinnett’s in-put as I know that providing support to a total stranger has
challenges that are different from assisting someone that we know. The
story follows along with suggestions for future similar situations.
My phone rang last Tuesday morning shortly after my wife had left for an
appointment. She told me her car had been rear-ended; that there were
no injuries, but she needed me to look at the car.
I ran for the door, jumped in my car and arrived on the scene within
My wife, and the other driver were out of their cars at this point, and my
wife immediately indicated that I should remain quiet to
assess the situation.
Subsequently, my wife indicated that when the incident occurred she
looked in her rear view mirror and observed the other driver using his
phone. His phone was in his hand and, as was later confirmed, he was
texting. He made no attempt to get out of the car or even to look out
but remained in the driver’s seat with his head down and his hands up
to his ears. She got out of her car and looked at both cars. She could
not see any damage, but knew I was on the way to confirm this.
The other driver remained in his car, head down. When out of the car she
also observed his car was still inside the School Zone that carries heavy
fines for phone usage within the zone. After sitting in her car for a couple
of minutes longer, my wife was puzzled and annoyed that this driver
would not get out of his car, but after he saw her out of her car he got
out too. Maybe he had seen my wife making a call on her phone. Maybe
not, but suffice to say he never asked if she had called the police or what
she wanted to do regarding the accident.
My wife asked him if he knew that texting while driving was against the
law, it was extremely dangerous and that this could have been a serious
accident. He was visibly shaking and crying and said that he was always
making a mess of his life. My wife was very taken aback by his reaction
and said to him that he needed to learn from this mistake, that the cars
looked ok and no harm was done. The crying and shaking continued, and
he said he was driving home from therapy as he had tried to commit
suicide two weeks ago. My wife reassured him that the accident was no
longer important, that he needed to take a deep breath and try to calm
down. She asked him if he was on medication and he confirmed he was.
She asked if he had taken his medication and he confirmed he had.
With that I arrived.
I looked at both cars, and there appeared to be no visible damage to
either one, and I started to speak to the man. My wife had to leave, but
before doing so she asked his name and told him I would stay with him.
It was important to both my wife and me that we would not escalate
this situation by contacting the police regarding the accident, but it was
clear he needed someone to talk to while he calmed down. We asked
his name, he told us it was Sammy.
It was at that point that we realized that we were looking at a potentially
serious situation, and far more important than a small dent on a car.
My wife had to leave.
I suggested that we go to a coffee shop as it was cold outside, but since
he wasn’t familiar with the area, I had to suggest places to go. He calmed
himself sufficiently to drive and I followed him.
He drove ok, and we eventually found a coffee shop, went in and he had
a bottle of water saying that coffee got him “wired”!
As we walked away from the counter, Sammy turned around and
recognized the next person in line – the only other customer in the shop.
Apparently, they had been in the same therapy session that very morning!
I couldn’t take on two together, so I took my “friend” off, and we sat in
the corner, and for the next 2 hours he told me about his girlfriend, his
relationship with his parents (in Florida, on vacation) with whom he lived,
his twin brother and his other sibling – a younger sister.
His nervousness and shaking were quite extreme, but his eyes were clear,
and while his trembling lips did impact his speech, he was making sense
in what he said.
Sammy told me that his girlfriend of five years had broken up with him, he
was failing in college, might lose his job, and he didn’t see any point
in going on.
Apparently, he was in a class for X-ray technicians, but it wasn’t going
well. I suggested it might be because he had so much on his mind, and
he agreed. After his girlfriend broke up with him, he apparently took it
very badly and passed out somewhere and was taken to hospital.
There appeared to be some irregularity in the way he was released from
hospital, and when he asked for documentation to give to his employer
to prove that he couldn’t work, the doctor’s office refused to give it for
some reason. This resulted in him being threatened with losing his job.
I asked about his parents as he lived at home, and he told me that their
relationship wasn’t good. Not a surprise, I said, given that you are
unhappy with the loss of your girlfriend, and potentially getting kicked
out of school, and losing your job – all of that would
make anyone unhappy!
I then asked him how he had done in high-school. He told me he was a
straight-A student, but was a loner, as drinking, drugs, and parties
were not attractive to him. He wanted no part of that scene.
I told him that knowing nothing about him, I could tell he was clever,
bright, articulate and while that was obvious now, it was also apparent
that he was undergoing a very difficult time.
He also mentioned that he got on well with his twin brother, and they
had mutual friends – but essentially, they were primarily his brother's
friends. So, he appeared to be slow to make new friends – which I
acknowledged must be very difficult in today’s world.
I asked him if he had any affiliation with a church or synagogue or
mosque. He told me that he was Catholic, and had a good relationship
with their former priest – but that he died. His entire family
attended his funeral.
He had drifted from the church for a couple of reasons, some involving
During the conversation he mentioned a couple of things about his now
ex-girlfriend using needles, trying to hurt herself.
So – what to do?
I summed up what he told me. He was very unhappy for very obvious
reasons. He couldn’t focus on his studies, or his job. But, he had to come
up with a plan to get back on track.
I suggested that he had three options. First, take a different approach
with his doctor. Go to the doctor’s office and insist on seeing a nurse.
Explain to her the situation he was in, and by looking her in the eye and
telling her about his difficulties, I felt she would help.
Secondly, call his priest and ask him to keep the conversation
confidential. Tell him what the problems are, and that you need a new
avenue to find new friends.
Third, talk to his brother. He had been supportive and would
continue to be.
He appeared to be open to these suggestions, and I stressed that
these were a possible foundation for him to handle his problems.
We then got up to leave the coffee shop, and I went to shake hands
with him. But, something made me hug him, and while he responded
positively, I felt I had made a mistake. Did I?
What Carolyn said:
I reminded Dan that instinctive responses are often the best in
a situation like this – so if he felt inclined to hug – go for it.
What Dr. Paul said:
Hugs are powerful business. For therapists, they cannot be
assumed to be benign, and can put you at risk if the person
is the opposite sex and doesn’t give permission for a hug.
On the other hand, in some cultures not to hug is seen as
uncaring and thoughtless, e.g., Hispanics. It’s a tough call,
but there is no doubt about the healing power of touch – so
if any error, there should be no foul and no penalty.
He then asked me if he could have my phone number – which I gave
him. I had no objection to doing that, and while I have heard nothing
since our meeting, I reflected afterwards that it also was a mistake.
What Carolyn said:
I said this is highly personal – I probably would.
What Dr. Paul said:
His call. Not much to guide us here. WWJD (What Would
Jesus Do answers the question).
While I would like to think that my conversation helped the young
man, I can only be sure that it helped him for the 2 hours I spoke to
him. After that, I am concerned for him, but know nothing further.
What Dr. Paul said:
He could offer to call – rather than wait for the young man to
initiate – and get his number if the fellow said yes, that would
be a home run, as he could then call and check in.
In my office practice, when a once-suicidal patient and I were
ending therapy, I asked them if I could call them to see how
they were doing. No one ever said no in 30 years. And I would
call them. Very few felt they needed to come in for more
counseling (and I wasn’t looking for customers), but all were
appreciative and said they had been, “waiting for my call”.
There is strong research to support “staying connected” as a
major intervention to prevent suicide.
If you like, here’s a learning maze on the topic which you could
plug into your story to reinforce Dan’s good work. No surprise,
it is a perfect fit for what he did.
Dr. Paul Quinnett of the QPR Institue has provided a maze that
you can particiapte in to increase your knowledge of suicide
prevention. Here is the maze below:
QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer and is a research-based
intervention that anyone can learn. The Foundation works with the QPR
Institute to customize this successful intervention for cruise lines,
aviation, human resources professionals and other workplace groups.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org at the Foundation if you would
like to know more about how you can learn to be a QPR Gatekeeper in your
organization. You can also learn how you can become a certified trainer
of the QPR Gatekeeper model. Contact the Foundation to discuss your
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