This article appeared in The Daily Memphian on September 17, 2019.
A counselor who lost her son to suicide gave a room full of parents and teachers specific things to look for, ask and say to fragile and destructive people who may turn to death as an answer.
Grace McLaren, who holds a master’s degree in counseling and personnel, offered the free training Thursday at Bornblum Jewish Community School. More than 200 people showed up to participate in her 1 ½-hour interactive presentation. She also conducts longer coaching sessions, as she did for Bornblum teachers, staff and other educators in August.
“I wish I’d had this knowledge sooner,” said Jeff Kay, whose 14-year-old son killed himself in March 2018. “The reality is, I should have been asking more questions.”
McLaren wants to take First Responder Coaching to individuals and organizations across the city and do for suicide what training “average Joes” in CPR did for heart attack survivability. While personal tragedy sparked her efforts to coach people about suicide intervention, the training is timely in a society riddled with depression, suicide and suicide attempts, even among children.
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According to McLaren, what is predictable is preventable – and 80% of fragile people give clear warning signs before taking their own lives. The counselor gave the crowd a number of statistics, some culled from the Centers for Disease Control, including that or one in four children are sad or feel hopeless and one in six seriously contemplate suicide.
To determine if a child or an adult is in a fragile state – the precursor to being destructive to themselves or others – McLaren provided the audience signs to look for. They included isolation, changes in hygiene, eating challenges and lack of eye contact.
She put the “key signs of fragile” and “key signs of suicidal” on a postcard for participants to take home. The postcard also gave the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255. McLaren suggested everyone put the number in their children’s cell phones, even if they think they’ll never need it.
To go from identifying fragile and suicidal states to intervening, McLaren introduced “voices” — the dark voice, the light voice and the parent voice.
Sarah Harrison, a lawyer and the mother of two girls, found the voices discussion enlightening. Using those terms, she now feels capable of identifying fragility in her daughters.
“It empowers me to talk to (them) in addition to what the therapist says, or to dialogue with the therapist,” Harrison said. “And that I don’t have to wait.”
The dark voice drains energy. This voice, said McLaren, tells the individual she is not worthy or not capable. The light voice seeks support and natural rewards to override the darkness. The parent voice, she said, assesses the dark and light voices, disarms unhelpful messages and offers strategies to overcome obstacles. We all need to develop the regulating parent voice, she said, and mothers and fathers can help children learn to listen and activate it.
To take a person from listening to the dark voice to a healthier voice, parents must engage a child to discover the root cause of the voice. Ask them, “What is your pain?” “What is the dark voice saying? — I’m a failure? I’m not lovable enough to have friends? I failed all my tests?
The parent must then challenge the lie – but what if the dark voice seems to be telling the truth? McLaren told the audience to dig deep into the root cause and then help the person come up with a plan. Perhaps it will be learning skills to make friends or tutoring.
Lauren Tochner, a mother and teacher, said she’d never heard about the voices before, but will never forget them now. The coaching will help her in personal and professional situations. Importantly, the coaching will help her know what not to say, too.
As in, “what’s wrong with you?” or anything that glosses over a person’s feelings or shuts them down.
McLaren offered alternative questions to ask after recognizing a fragile or suicidal sign or when someone specifies their pain and admits they want to harm themselves. She suggested, “What is happening with you? Something seems wrong. Let’s talk.”
“Be present,” McLaren said. “Hear their pain. Listen to their story. If they say they are ‘fine,’ you can point out things you’ve seen. Enter their circle with the greatest respect.”
The Sidney Kay Foundation, founded by Jeff and Larissa Kay, sponsored the coaching event. Jeff Kay knows he did the best he could with the knowledge he had when his son showed signs of what he now recognizes as precursors to suicide, but he has three living children who can benefit from what he learned from McLaren.
“This was a good introductory class,” he said. “I think there’s a high chance this will resonate with a lot of people.”
McLaren charges for presentations on a sliding scale based on the venue, including corporate, schools and nonprofit rates. Visit www.firstrespondercoaching.com to learn more.