Gatekeepers for suicide prevention

Gatekeepers for suicide prevention

LiQ_Mag_Cover_July2014This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.
Life in Quebec Magazine is a lifestyle publication covering the Quebec region and is currently published at least 3 times per year.
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By Simon Jacobs

Retired judge Michael Sheehan and I met at his home in Ste-Foy to discuss his involvement as a spokesman on suicide prevention. At 73 years of age he looks spritely, with his flowing white hair, sporting a mustache, and speaking in clear well-measured tones. He was born in New Carlisle in the Gaspé and went on to study law at Laval University as well as human rights at the University of Strasbourg. He became a judge in 1988, moving up to Assistant Coordinator for the Court of Québec in 1998. This dedication to justice, along with his volunteer work, was recognized recently when he was inducted into the Order of Québec.

He and his wife had brought up four children in their Ste-Foy home before a horrendous tragedy hit them in 1995. Their second son, Philip, had become severely depressed, but had underwent a month-long observation and appeared to have come out feeling better. His father assumed that he was “cured”, since “we rely on doctors to have the solution… if they had, then they wouldn’t have released him.” Philip continued to see a psychiatrist and take medication after hospitalization. A few months later, he took himself off the medication without his doctor’s knowledge.

His parents assumed the doctor had approved. He committed suicide at the age of 25.

Michael Sheehan in his Quebec City home.  Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

Michael Sheehan in his Quebec City home.
Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

The entire family was devastated and went into an intensive grieving period which lasted two long years before they began to see life return to something appearing as normal. “Grieving is a personal business. We don’t all have the same DNA, we don’t all have the same coping skills, the same friends, nor the same resilience and we use different methods to get through,” said Judge Sheehan.

It was only after this two year period that he wanted to do something that would possibly avert this tragedy from befalling anyone else. He got in touch with the Quebec Suicide Prevention Centre (CPSQ) and asked if he could volunteer taking calls on their crisis line. This required over sixty hours of training and a thorough understanding of the protocols that they had developed, teaching them how to listen to someone and help when called. All volunteers work with a professional: a psychologist, a social worker, even sometimes young medical interns. They are there to listen and to help callers with their immediate crisis, help secure them from immediate harm, talking them out of an attempt on their lives and trying to get them to seek professional help.

For the next three years Mr. Sheehan volunteered one night a week. The experience spilled over into his professional work too, leading to a new level of tolerance in his court: “The next morning (after volunteering) if someone showed up late or there was a missing witness, well, I’ve seen worse…” After three years of working the crisis line he decided to change tack, working on prevention rather than when the crisis struck.

With the CPSQ, he developed a message which he brought to students in gatherings in schools and CÉGEPs, explaining the need to get help and how to help others. Ultimately this form of communication was changed as it was felt that such open talk about suicide, without the correct safety net organization underneath, may actually ‘push’ someone into considering it. Instead, the ‘Sentinel’ or ‘Gatekeeper’ approach was developed. The idea is that a few key people in the school are given training in how to spot suicidal tendencies and behaviours and also have the resources to help get at-risk people to professional help quickly.

This approach has spread and has now been employed by different institutions, such as correctional services, to great effect. Since the Gatekeeper program came into effect, prison suicide rates have dropped by 50%. As a Rotarian, Mr. Sheehan has helped instigate the Gatekeeper program in over fifty of the clubs in his district.

LiQ_Mag_Abonnez-vousWhile the need to seek professional help is paramount, it does not mean that friends and family should feel that they are no longer needed or should not remain vigilant. It is important to provide support for a friend or family member who is in distress, but we should not attempt to take on the responsibility of trying to solely take care of someone. One of the most important things that we should do is steer them to a healthcare professional.

There should be no stigma against admitting to needing help. “Say to them, ‘think of Olympic athletes, the best in the world. They all have a coach, a physiotherapist, a psychologist to help their mind, to work on strategy. They are surrounded with professional help… We don’t say they are weak because they are getting professional help.’ We say in French ‘demander de l’aide, c’est fort’. It’s not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength and of character.”

As a judge, Mr. Sheehan has seen the evolution of support for women suffering family violence. “People had a mindset where there was no way out. But they set up a whole program where they said it wasn’t just a justice department problem, it’s people looking after families, it’s a government issue.” We are now starting to see a similar government approach regarding suicide prevention. A kindergarten and elementary school program, titled ‘Friends of Zippy’, has been developed that doesn’t directly discuss suicide but shows children how to deal with setbacks and disappointments and has led to more peer support in times of distress.

As a spokesperson for the CPSQ, Mr. Sheehan has recently been sporting good news. The latest suicide figures in Quebec over the past nineteen years have been nearly cut in half, a phenomenon that Mr. Sheehan attributes to better preventative action and awareness programs. What he’s hoping is that the government will mandatorily instigate the Gatekeeper program in the workplace, just as it has done with the CPR and first aid program run by the CSST.

Do you need help or know someone who does? The crisis line number (free of charge from anywhere in Quebec, and staffed 24/7) is 1 866 APPELLE / 1 866 277 3553. To know more:

About Author

Simon Jacobs

Originally from the UK, Simon Jacobs has been living in Quebec City since 1989. He played viola with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra for 20 years before moving on to become the Executive Director of the Morrin Centre. Currently studying for an MBA at Laval University, he is also a certified Quebec City tour guide and a historian specialising in the Jewish history of Quebec City. He is the current president of the Québec Anglophone heritage network.

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