“We talked as an organization about how the students on The Ave who go to uw have access to that, but the youth on The Ave who aren’t at UW don’t,” Miller said.
In King County, there were 824 homeless and unstably housed youth and young adults on a single day in 2015, with disproportionately high numbers of lgbtq and African-American individuals.
With funding from the Mark Torrance Foundation, Forefront is offering a series of free basic suicide prevention trainings, as well as assistance developing agency-wide procedures around suicide prevention, to those in King County who work with youth experiencing homelessness or foster care.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youth between ages 10 and 24. Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable, facing high rates of trauma, sexual and physical abuse, family crisis and loss, and incarceration and mental illness.
In the last few years, Washington enacted legislation requiring certain health professionals and school personnel to have suicide prevention training. But for homeless youth, many of whom are not in school, the first point-of-contact is more likely be a shelter volunteer or service provider.
The trainings are called safeTALKS, standing for “suicide alertness for everyone,” coupled with an acronym for basic steps: Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe. In three hours, participants learn how to recognize signs of suicidal thought, start a conversation and connect youth to the help they need.
“You leave with a tangible skill set that can be applied in a moment that can feel very overwhelming,” Miller said. “Sometimes you see these steps and it’s almost too simple, and suicide is not simple. But these steps that seem straightforward can really provide a lifeline.”
The trainings aim to cut through stigma or fear that can lead to ignoring signs of suicidal thought. Feeling ill-equipped to help, for instance, is one fear Miller knows from experience. He is haunted by a Facebook post from a classmate who died by suicide the next day.
“I told myself I’d call in the morning,” he said. “I didn’t have any skill set when I needed it, and I was filled with panic and did all the things to dismiss or avoid it, and I regret that. This training gives you something to offer in that moment of doubt.”
At a July training, there were participants from organizations such as roots Young Adult Shelter, YouthCare and Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets. Stephanie Miller, of New Horizons Ministries, said she has had more than one experience talking to youth about suicide.
“It’s definitely a reality,” she said. “This is helpful in learning how to have the conversation. Everyone should do this.”
Stephen Miller said he envisions a world where basic suicide prevention skills are considered as fundamental as CPR or first aid.