NORTHAMPTON — Suicide. It’s not a topic most people want to discuss. Yet getting past that social taboo is the first step toward prevention, according to Karen Franklin, director of Outpatient Services for ServiceNet, a mental-health and human-services organization based in Northampton, with five behavioral-health centers located in communities throughout Western Mass.

“This taboo applies to family and friends as well as to those who are having suicidal thoughts and feelings,” Franklin said.

National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 5-11, is a time to call attention to a topic therapists and psychiatrists face daily. In outpatient mental-health care, scanning for suicide risk is to the intake process what blood-pressure checks are to the primary-care visit.

“We ask the same few basic questions of anyone who comes to us for therapy,” said Franklin. “When we have any concern, we ask a series of additional questions to determine what would be the best and safest course of action. The individual’s plan might include psychiatric evaluation, treatment with medication for depression, individual therapy, group therapy, or any combination of these approaches.”

People who have attempted suicide in the past are at increased risk of another attempt, and they may benefit from an evidence-based treatment called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). “This therapy was specifically developed to prevent suicide in those who had already attempted it, and research has proven it to be highly effective,” Franklin said. ServiceNet was the first mental health organization in the Pioneer Valley to use DBT, starting in 1994.

Program participants usually enroll in DBT for six months, and the first requirement is that they agree to stay alive during that treatment period. Therapy includes weekly one-to-one meetings with their therapists, weekly group sessions in which they learn coping skills to help regulate their emotions, additional telephone coaching between sessions, and keeping a daily diary in which they record feelings that may contribute to risky behaviors. “Our goal in treatment is to help people build a life for themselves in which they no longer consider suicide an option,” said Franklin.

As painful as suicidal thoughts and feelings are for the individual who is experiencing them, the ripple effects on their family, friends, and community can last for years. “Preventing suicide is everyone’s business,” noted Franklin. “Knowing what to look for is the first step, and having the courage to discuss it is the second.”

Some of the signs that a person may be contemplating suicide include increasing depression and expressed feelings of hopelessness, writing to friends and family to say goodbye, being unwilling to commit to long-term plans, stockpiling medications, looking up suicide methods online, and giving items and pets away.

“Many of us are reluctant to ask a person if he or she is contemplating suicide,” said Franklin. “We may believe it’s an invasion of their privacy, or worry that we will plant the idea in their head. But staying silent is not the answer. And by speaking up, we let them know we care and are concerned. This is an important message to give to someone who may believe they have become a burden to others, and that suicide is the only way out.”

Just as important is knowing whom to call. Each community has a crisis-services team, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — (800) 273-8255 — will connect callers directly to the crisis team closest to them.

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