|On The Bridge….|
|By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)|
On the bridge….”I was standing on the bridge waiting to jump”…..in the past two and a half years since I have heard those words I have discussed a different perspective when training jail officers that encounter the suicidal inmate. These words were told to a class of jail officers in September 2009. My teaching partner at ETC, Tim Manley and I had agreed to allow several mentally ill persons to speak to a class that we were conducting about dealing with the mentally ill offender. The speakers were recommended by and came to us from the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. They were an interesting addition to the class and trainers should consider contacting NAMI to use them; NAMI personnel trains and screens the speakers.
Several of the speakers spoke of being depressed. One, who I will call “Linda”, told us of her history of mental illness, and she could not have been more than 30 years of age. She had been hospitalized 29 times and had lived on the street and in shelters. She has since been able to manage her mental illness (one is never cured) and has since successfully gone on to college.
During the time that her mental illness was out of control, she lived in fear and described her life as “being afraid of everything.”
She had our attention as she told a story of one of her suicide attempts. She was standing on a bridge, thinking about jumping and ending her life. Two police officers arrived, approached her and by their actions prevented her from killing herself.
This is where I pause in my instruction. I tell the class that Linda described the officers’ behavior. She finally said to herself that she thought that maybe the act of suicide was not the answer.
I then ask the class to describe these officers, which results in a discussion where each officer attendee that gives me a trait has to explain why he or she came up with that particular trait. This exercise gets them to think.
The descriptions of the officers that Linda told us can be applied to any corrections officer that is trying to keep an inmate from in a sense, stepping off of the bridge. When an inmate is thinking about ending his or her life and a corrections officer is dealing with him or her, the traits that Linda said that these officers displayed may prevent a suicide, and bring the inmate back from the edge.
Linda described these officers as:
Gentle: they did not act rough, tough or authoritative.
Kind: they realized that she needed help, and felt empathy.
Concerned: the focus of their interest was her well being.
Respectful: she was troubled, mentally ill, but she was a person, deserving of basic human dignity and respect.
Polite: they displayed well mannered behavior.
Did not get annoyed or bothered: she was the most important person in the world at that particular time; they did not try to “rush” the situation.
Linda described some of the things that the two officers said. They explained what they were going to do. They asked her several important questions: “Can I help you?” and “Do you want help?” and “Do you have someone that we could contact?”
I think that the way that these two officers approached and handled this suicidal young woman can be applied to dealing with suicidal inmates in our nation’s jails. In training we can learn about data such as profiles of suicidal inmates, the times that they attempt suicide, the rates of substance abuse among suicidal inmates, manipulation with some inmates, methods and so on. This information is important and should be discussed.
But-the way that officers should manage, handle and communicate with suicidal inmates must be also explored. My teaching partner, Tim Manley, has a good rule: when dealing with a person who is thinking of suicide, it is important to let the person talk and stay with the person. Listen to what they are saying, and keep that human contact focused. To do this-an officer must act like the police officers did that day-talking a young woman into continuing her life, instead of stepping off into the abyss. You, as were the police officers, are the lifeline. You have to stay with the person until the matter is turned over to the mental health staff.
One final word…..the job is stressful, and we jail officers deal with many different offenders-people that have gotten themselves into trouble and have found themselves seemingly at the bottom of life’s barrel.
But-they are still people……..people that want to live.
Author’s note: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can serve as a great training resource. The NAMI website can be accessed at http://www.nami.org. The information telephone helpline is 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
Corrections.com author, Gary Cornelius, is an interim member on the Board of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local jails. He is also a member of ACA, AJA, and the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology. In 2008, Gary co founded ETC, LLC, Education and Training in Corrections with colleague Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker.
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