Traditionally, suicide risk assessments and safety plans have been the responsibility of professionals with clinical backgrounds; this was the case in Ballyfermot until a new approach to suicide prevention was trialled. The result of this pilot was a more collaborative, community based approach to deal with challenging issues - making suicide prevention everyones business.
The Ballyfermot Local Drugs Force was set up to create an inter-agency approach to illegal drugs in Dublin, Ireland. In the process, they took a clinical intervention model that empowered frontline workers in the community. I chatted to a few people involved with the project to get an idea of how it started, and the impact it has had on the local community.
Frank Gilligan, Drug Task Force Coordinator employed by the Health Services Executive, explained that the Ballyfermot STORM Programme came about due to a number of culminating factors picked up in an evaluation study. First, they were aware that there was a close relationship between drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues. However, the mental health and addictions workforce worked in silos. Additionally, Frank suggested that the drug workforce was “ill at ease” with mental health. They learned that drug and alcohol problems were implicated in many suicides, placing the population they worked with at higher risk. Finally, they became aware that drug and alcohol users were expressing thoughts of suicide, but were not given the support they needed. In some cases, this was due to poor attitudes and perceptions that drug users were ‘time wasters’. “What were they to do?” Frank asks.
The solution - or at least part of it - came from having a STORM Skills Training Licence Agreement, and according to Frank, “the dedication, professionalism, passion and knowledge” of the Ballyfermot STORM Team on the ground. The team was initially headed up by Aoife Harressey, Coodinator at Ballyfermot Advance until last year.
Aoife’s team started by offering STORM training to frontline drug and alcohol workers. Word quickly spread and the agencies requesting the training expanded to organisations that were not at all involved in drug addiction. The project negotiated an updated license agreement, and soon STORM was being delivered to a range of settings where a response to suicide was needed. “The product ‘sold’ itself,” says Frank. “You would have an organisation that was truly reluctant to get involved. We’d convince them to send just one team member along. Before you knew it you would have two on the next course, three on the following and more on the waiting list.”
During our conversation Frank talked about the benefits of skills training. “The one thing that is attractive about STORM is that it is skills based training. Just like brain surgery, [suicide risk assessment and safety planning] is a skill that is practiced before you do the real thing. STORM skills training provides this opportunity. Skills based training is tangible and gives people something real to take away.”
Aoife found networking and collaboration built across agencies and organisations a powerful secondary benefit of their approach. She highlighted that holding multi-agency training sessions meant that individuals across a range of services were meeting and networking, sometimes for the first time. “It was very powerful to have mental health workers, teachers, drug workers and child safety all in the same room,” says Aoife. “Not only did people leave with a set of skills, they also left with a clearer picture of what support and services were available in the local area and a face to face relationship with someone in that organisation.”
In spite of facilitators moving on from their roles and a consequent lull in STORM activity, the appetite for STORM was still there. In response to this demand, Ballyfermot Advance Project renewed their licence, but this time partnered with their neighbor, Clondalkin. This expanded the impact of STORM with the benefit of shared financial and operational commitments. This new STORM team is made up of Addiction Workers and Youth Workers.
Bernie was a School Completion Worker when she participated in STORM training during the first roll-out in 2010. She remembers STORM being the “most practical training” she had ever done. “I was regularly using the skills and tools to support young people who were thinking of suicide and/or using self-harm to cope.”
Now a STORM facilitator and coordinator of Family Matters - Area Based Childhood Programme, Bernie often hears examples from practice. STORM provides a framework and structure to be able to ask direct questions, and to obtain the information needed to effectively keep a person safe. The practical aspect of the training not only provides what to ask, but how to ask it. This helps with the 'awkwardness' that often comes with having difficult conversations. Another great thing, especially for teachers and youth workers according to Bernie, is that it builds on and brings out “skills they already have”.
Suicide is a topic that does conjure fear and anxiety, even for some of us that are trained. The concern of saying something wrong and making things worse is a common misconception. “Once they were trained they were no longer scared of responding to risk. Their eyes became wide open, and they were able to pick up on things they would have let go previously,” claims Aoife.
It seems that providing these skills to a wider audience beyond those with clinical backgrounds arms a community, promotes collaboration and shares the workload. “STORM is actually about sharing the workload. Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Once they have done STORM individuals no longer feel weighed down by suicide risk. They see they are not alone in managing risk anymore. They are part of connected local strategy with pathways for helping people” affirms Aoife.
If you think a community approach to suicide approach would be useful for your area, get in touch.