I’m currently teaching a social work graduate class on group work. My students are engaged and nervous. They’re fearful of conflict, they aren’t sure how to deal with manipulative group members, and they wonder if they’ll ever feel confident enough to run a group.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about evidence-based practice. I teach, and believe, that group work is a balance of art and science, that there are times when you are feeling your way through and there are times when there is more objective knowledge to guide you. But, I know that there is a struggle in the field with using evidence-based practice—objective knowledge—because, well, people don’t do it.

It’s been one of the hardest things for me to accept in my social work career: We have the knowledge, based on research, that can guide our practice. Yet, we often turn to our own inner sense of what’s right, what feels good, to make decisions about what to do for or with the people we serve.

I know as I speak with my students that they hear me sounding like an ivory-tower academic, using words like “intervention” and “evidence,” in sentences like, “"Your intervention should be based on what the evidence is suggesting.” My guess is that’s not so inspirational to them, that it maybe even shuts them down.

When I turned to one of my mentors to help me think through how to better teach the importance of evidence-based practice, she suggested I approach it this way:

“Sometimes I play with the idea that they’re a patient with a broken ankle. They go to a doctor and they ask "What approach will you take? What evidence do you have that this approach to fixing my ankle is better than another?" Imagine if the doctor said, ‘Oh, I don’t know…Just trust me. I have great values and I care about you.’ Would they feel confident? Well-served?”

So often, this is what we do in the field of mental health. We offer a lot of care without a lot to back it up. Our intentions are good, but our evidence to support those intentions is missing.

This week, National Suicide Prevention Week, it seems particularly appropriate to talk about both the good and the evidence-based.

One campaign that’s doing just that is #BeThe1To, one campaign uniting the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) and its public and private partners to educate the public about the importance of being there for someone who is struggling or in crisis.

#BeThe1To outlines five action steps for communicating with someone who may be suicidal:

1. Ask: Asking the question “Are you thinking about suicide?” communicates that you’re open to speaking about suicide in a non-judgmental and supportive way.

2. Keep them safe: After the “Ask” step, and you’ve determined suicide is indeed being talked about, it’s important to find out a few things to establish immediate safety.

3. Be there: This could mean being physically present for someone, speaking with them on the phone when you can, or any other way that shows support for the person at risk.

4. Help them connect: Helping someone with thoughts of suicide connect with ongoing supports (like the Lifeline, 800-273-8255) can help them establish a safety net for those moments they find themselves in a crisis.

5. Follow up: After your initial contact with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and after you’ve connected them with the immediate support systems they need, make sure to follow-up with them to see how they’re doing.

So simple. And yet, there’s a small mountain of evidence underneath each of these actions. When you go to the site to read more about asking, keeping people safe, being there, helping people connect, and following up, you can click through to research that supports each of these action steps.

Suicide prevention feels complex, and it is. It usually isn’t any one thing, but a combination of different things, that helps people move out of suicidal risk. But, in many ways, suicide prevention is simple: Those five steps, which together equal being there for others.

Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

The Lifeline network and its partners are working to change the conversation from suicide to suicide prevention, to actions that can promote healing, help and give hope. If you are in crisis, call 800-273-8255 (in the US - internationally, visit IASP).  

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