Finding Wills to Live

Spokane hopes to train a fleet of citizen-experts to combat its suicide problem.

Paul Quinnett knows about suicide. The psychologist has written two books on the topic. He also runs the QPR Institute, which every year trains thousands of people to help prevent suicides.

But Spokane County, where Quinnett lives, has a worse-than-average suicide problem. In four years in Spokane, 366 people have killed themselves. That’s nearly two a week. The rate in Spokane is nearly a quarter higher than the state average — which in turn is higher than the national average.

Why? “New Jersey, New York, they have some of the lowest suicide rates in the country,” Quinnett says. “There’s a sophistication about seeing a therapist in the East Coast, that’s not as prevalent in the west side.”

Experts credit New York’s City’s considerable mental health programs and its stricter gun control. Suicide rates are actually lower in bigger cities, like New York or Seattle.

Some communities are just better prepared to stop suicide. Take the United States Air Force program for identifying and helping suicidal soldiers.

“The suicide rates went down 33 percent, and the serious domestic violence rates went down 54 percent,” Quinnett says. “It’s inspiring. It shows what could be done if we had a uniform approach.”

Friday afternoon, Quinnett sat with the rest of the Suicide Prevention Coalition, searching for similar strategies to fight suicide in Spokane. The coalition also includes representatives from Fairchild Air Force Base, Juvenile Court Services, the Spokane Regional Health Department, Spokane Mental Health, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, all dedicated to solving Spokane’s considerable suicide problem.

How to Save A Life

For Robin Edie, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention volunteer, the stakes are personal. Six years ago, her sister — struggling with mental illness — committed suicide. If Robin knew what she knew now, she says, she believes that things might have turned out differently.

“I [hope] to prevent one more person from living the life of whys. Why did it happen? Why her?” Edie says. “I lived in a really dark place for three years.”

The first step to stopping suicide: saying the word.

“Quit being so afraid of saying the word ‘suicide.’ We need to stop living in the backwoods and talk about it,” Edie says. “Remember how AIDS used to be in the ’80s? It was a secret, it was such a taboo issue, but then people started talking about it.”

This year, the Suicide Coalition plans to use brochures, Facebook pages, public service announcements and billboards to spread that message, possibly with the slogan, “Who will say the word?” Quinnett calls the word “suicide” the “last taboo.” Too many people, he says, are afraid that by asking, they’ll introduce the idea of suicide. Not so, research says.

“The idea’s already there,” Edie says. “If you’re talking about it, and opening up about it, then they know someone [is listening]” But many people never ask. They’re afraid of the answer they’d get. That’s where training comes in handy.

“We’re training 10,000 people a month, we have 5,000 instructors,” Quinnett says. “We’re the largest trainer in the country, and we don’t do much in Spokane at all.”

That’s about to change. Quinnett has decided to — at least for now — make a light, one-hour version of his QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide prevention training available to the health district for free. The health district is considering charging around $10 a training session, money that they might use to fund suicide prevention efforts.

The coalition plans to work with area businesses prone to suicide — construction trades, law enforcement agencies, prisons and law firms — and offer training in how to recognize and find help for potentially suicidal employees.

On one level, it’s started already. For her senior project, Quinnett’s daughter, Alex, helped train 25 Freeman High School students.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t have someone to talk to,” Alex says.

Learn to recognize serious depression — often spurred by a death or breakup or layoff — the training says. Of Spokane students reporting depression, 40 percent say they’ve considered suicide.

Suicidal people may start giving away their possessions.

They may suddenly become religious or reject their religion. They may begin using phrases like “soon you won’t have to worry about me” When that happens, Quinnet says, it’s best to be direct.

The closer someone gets to committing suicide, the less they’ll open up about it on their own.

“How you ask the question is less important than that you ask it,” Quinnett explains. Most of the time, the question can be as simple as “Are you considering suicide?” (The one phrase to avoid: “You’re not considering suicide, are you?” That sends a message that they shouldn’t admit they’re thinking about suicide.)

If they say “yes,” Quinnet suggests, then listen. Listen to them tell their story, listen to them talk about their history, their problems, their emotional struggles.

“You don’t pass judgment, you don’t interrupt them, no matter how scattered they may be,” Quinnett says.

Just the act of listening, Quinnett says, can stave off suicides. Listen, and a suicidal person may start solving his own problems.

Then take them to someone who can help — a therapist, a school counselor, a pastor. For some people — especially men — seeking therapy is difficult. Seeking help can feel like admitting weakness.

“To get men to get help, you present them with your problem.” Quinnett says. “He needs to be needed.”

Quinnett sometimes likes to ask suicidal people to help him. He says something like: For me, I need you to get healthy.

Then take them volunteering, he says. If they feel they’re making a contribution — if they have a connection — suddenly, they feel they matter.

The Cost

Government budgets are tight, Quinnett understands. So he makes a practical economic argument. Prevent just one hospital admission, and save the economy $20,270. If we, in Spokane County, can reduce our suicide-related hospital admissions by 50 percent, we save $3.4 million, Quinnett calculates. That’s 10 times Washington state’s suicide prevention budget.

The fight isn’t easy. “I had a congressman’s aide tell me that I was trying to climb a mountain that was too high,” Edie says. “But it’s my mountain to climb.”


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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...