Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Friday, 14 October 2005 12:34 UK

'First aid' suicide prevention course

By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Depressed man
Suicidal people often need a sympathetic ear

Jonathan* is specially trained in saving lives, but not very long ago he was a suicide risk himself.

Things had been building up and he felt at such a low ebb that suicide seemed the only answer.

He was determined to take an overdose.

"I just felt very down. I had a lot of problems. I am an epileptic and I could not come to terms with that".


Friends were becoming increasingly worried about the 41-year-old's depressed state and rightly suspected that he wanted to take his own life, but realised they were powerless to help prevent it.

One friend knew of Asist, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which has been described as "suicide first aid" and called them for help.

If it had not been for Asist I would not be here

Paddi Mobbs, director of the East Sussex charity Lewes District and Wealden Mind, which brought the Canadian based Asist to the UK, phoned Jonathan.

He told her he had the pills needed to commit suicide and that there was a bridge nearby that he could jump from.

She listened and made a contract - promising to help and support him if he promised not to take his life.

"He told me that he was really scared about the strong impulse he had to end his life and I said if you are really scared about things then you want to live and that was the turning point," said Paddi.

With Jonathan's permission she called the police and they arrested him for his own safety.

When he was at the police station she called him every hour, she arranged a social worker to visit and then had a long chat to him when he was released the next day.

"It saved my life. If it had not been for Asist I would not be here. I was able to sit down and talk about my problems with them," Jonathan said.

Now Jonathan is himself trained and says the skills he has learnt, following his own suicidal episode, will help not only himself, but others.


Asist, which now covers the whole of the South East, has been criticised by some professionals for giving the responsibility of preventing suicides to ordinary members of the public.

Paddi said that 75% of all suicides have not been in contact with health professionals immediately prior to their deaths.

She said training more people to spot suicidal tendencies would increase the number of people who can give help.

Paddi said: "There was some anxiety from people about training unqualified people, but our answer to this was that people do not always have access to CPN's (Community Psychiatric Nurse) when they are thinking about suicide and that they need people to talk to."

"When people who have lost friends and relatives replay their memory tapes they say they had a hunch that there was a problem.

"What we were looking for was a model that makes people comfortable about talking to these people about suicide."

Rob Fellows
You just need a caring human being
Rob Fellows

Diets Verschuren, development manager for mental health and substance misuse at East Sussex County Council, agreed.

"They are targeting people from a whole range of backgrounds so there is going to be a protective layer for people thinking of taking their lives."


Asist Co-ordinator Rob Fellows said they had trained representatives of the police, health services, prison staff as well as ordinary members of the public.

And he said Asist was proving very successful. "Recognising the signs that someone could commit suicide are not always as straightforward as them standing on a bridge threatening to kill themselves. It can be more subtle.

"We use the analogy that it is like a first aid. If someone is walking down the street and they have a heart attack then you do not need a heart surgeon to save their life. If you had one there he would not be using his heart surgeon skills anyway, but his CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)skills.

"The analogy is that if you are in severe emotional distress you do not need a nurse or psychiatrist you just need a caring human being.

"Just as CPR gives ordinary non-medical people the help to care for people having a heart attack, Asist gives the care for ordinary, non-medical people to give help to people who are suicidal."

Dr Tim Kendall, a consultant psychiatrist and co-director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH), said he had not heard of Asist, but said he said that in principle it seemed a good idea.

"There is no doubt that someone at risk of suicide tend to contact relatives and friends before they come into contact with professionals."

He said these were people who could benefit from an informative course, teaching them how to respond to people needing their help.

But stressed that if Asist was ever to be rolled out to cover more of the Uk that he would want to see an evaluation about how successful it is in preventing suicides.

*Jonathan is not his real name

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