The suicide rates in Oklahoma are staggering – it's the second leading cause of death among Oklahomans ages 10-34. From 2012-16, about 724 of the state's residents died by suicide each year. Suicide outnumbers homicides almost three to one.
Those are only a few of some daunting figures that mental health professionals and everyday residents are trying to change. They came together Friday at Oklahoma State University to learn how to spot suicidal tendencies before they form into completed plans and, if they're lucky, end the chance of suicide happening.
"Studies show that if someone thinking about suicide gets treatment, they're not going to attempt it again," Sherrill Scott said. Scott works with Mental Health Association Oklahoma and led Friday's training. She spoke about the reasons people commit suicide – from topics such as relationship, financial, work and family-related stressors to name a few – and that anyone can suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts before completing an attempt, whether it be a teenager struggling through the revolving stressors of middle and high school or an elderly person no longer wanting to feel a burden on their loved ones.
"The impact from a single suicide, 115 are going to be exposed in some way," Scott said. "They are gonna have a short-term disruption in their life caused by a single suicide. Then 25 will have a major life disruption and 11 will have devastating effects on their lives. So you could see how that drops into a pond and then it just ripples out the effects."
In 1995, Dr. Paul Quinnett coined a three-step method of approaching someone about them potentially having suicide thoughts; both Scott and Michelle Magalassi, whose son Brandon committed suicide in Owasso in 2004, said that "QPR" is an effective answer to the problem of trying to identify and assist those with suicidal tendencies.
"That stands for ‘Question, Persuade and Refer,’" Scott said. "It’s basically training about how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and how to have that conversation with someone, how to become comfortable asking the question, you know, ‘Are you having thoughts about hurting yourself, are you having thoughts about ending your life, killing yourself?’ Things like that.
"You just have to ask them straight out, there’s no easy way around it. And most of the time, on the other person’s end, their response is that they’re relieved that somebody has finally asked."
Scott said QPR can be compared to CPR; whereas CPR is a method designed to help someone having a breathing crisis, QPR is targeted to those suffering from mental health diseases. During the training, Scott said the most important part of asking someone about having suicidal thoughts is to be direct and upfront, but to also be positive and supportive.
Questions such as "Have you thought about ending your life?" or "Are you thinking of committing suicide?" are good examples, but even a few words can send the wrong message and entrench the problem. Adding a negative connotation, as in "You're not thinking of committing suicide, are you?" or "Suicide is a dumb idea. Would you ever do such a thing?" is looking for a "no" answer or shames people for having the harmful thoughts. Scott said it's important to be direct and persistent if the person is hesitant, and to approach them in a private setting they find comfortable.
Once you talk with and identify someone having suicidal thoughts, persuasion and referral finish the method in an attempt to get the person the help they need and hopefully show them that suicide, although they think it, is not the answer to their problems.
"Some people often believed they cannot be helped," Scott said. "So you may have to do more persuading – the persuading may have to take the extra mile because, what did you say earlier? They're feeling hopeless. So do you think they have hope that treatment will work for them? Or do you think they have hope that seeing a counselor is gonna make it all better? No, not in that moment."
Seeing the problem and reporting it is crucial – Scott recalled meeting an Edmond woman who she met and said that, upon going to her son's funeral after he died by suicide, she learned 12 people who knew him through school knew he was having suicidal thoughts. It's important, Scott said, for the communication to become a part of our culture and for people, even counselors, not to shy away from asking questions with such implications.
Magalassi has seen that difference made firsthand. After her son's death in 2004, her family set up the Brandon Magalassi Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which began awarding scholarships while trying to spread suicide awareness in schools and has accomplished just that.
Magalassi, now a Stillwater resident, said she and her husband hope to do more awareness events in Stillwater after continuing their success in Owasso. It was extremely successful in schools there, where she said more and more students were interested in learning how they could stop suicide before it took any more lives.
“Suicide prevention is one of my passions and the Mental Health Association gives me the opportunity not only to work with suicide prevention but to work with adolescents, which I love," Scott said. "We have a free screening in schools for adolescents to check on their mental health, and one of the questions they ask is ‘Have you had serious thoughts about killing yourself?’ The survey asks about a lot of other symptoms of depression and anxiety and other things. We’re always amazed every year at the number of kids that we have that answer yes to that question, even as young as the sixth grade.
"And I love working for an organization that truly believes in its mission and vision. Everyone who works at the Association really has a heart for what we’re doing, and it’s really hard to find that.”