By Brian Anderson, diving coach, mentor, and peer support.
“Coaches spend a great deal of time with kids and young adults – they can see things the parent doesn’t see.”
Coaches have a great deal of influence on athletes, from how they approach training to how they react to a win or loss. They set the tone for the team or training facility. Because of the amount of time they spend together, a coach is in a unique position to notice changes in behaviour or if an athlete is pushing too hard. Sometimes, because of the dynamics that exist, an athlete may feel more comfortable opening up to a team member or their coach.
When it comes to the topic of suicide, we need to provide our coaches with the tools needed for prevention, intervention, and postvention. As a coach and a suicide attempt survivor, I feel this training should be included in the certification of coaches regardless of the sport or level of competitiveness.
Suicide prevention depends heavily on our ability to recognize people who are in distress and may be at risk. We use a simple tool provide by The American Association of Suicidology to help us identify the warning signs of suicide. This tool is called “IS PATH WARM” and outlines the key points to remember. More information can be found here, on our website.
If you are concerned that an athlete is at risk, don’t be afraid to talk to them. Talking about suicide will not cause someone to suicide. It has the opposite effect.
Talking can feel like a burden is being lifted. Listen, do not be judgmental, and validate how they are feeling. Do not minimize their feelings by responding with something like, “it’s not that bad,” or “you are over reacting.” What they are experiencing is very real for them. If you are not sure what to say, it is okay to respond with, “I am not sure what say. I am really sorry you are feeling this way. What can I do to help?”
Keep an eye on the rest of your team and keep the lines of communication open. Let your team know, without bringing attention to the athlete you are concerned about, that you are here for them should they ever need to talk.
Depending on who your team is affiliated with, school or community program, you may have certain protocols to follow. Never keep an athlete’s thoughts of suicide a secret. You are not betraying their trust. You are looking out for their best interest. Share resources found on CASP with parents and club authorities. This is an opportunity to step in and help the athlete at risk.
You, or your club, may be interested in attending a SafeTALK workshop. It is a half-day program and you learn how to identify a person at risk, and how to talk to them.
Following a suicide attempt, you will want to help the athlete have a positive and successful return to the sport or team.
Talk to the athlete before they return. Find out how much do they want people to know, if anything? Do they want to tell team members on their own terms? Maybe they want the team to know but not talk about it on their return. It is about making sure they are comfortable and their mental health is being taken care of.
Set up a secret code or signal between the two of you so they don’t need to publicly announce they need a break, or someone to talk to.
Do not pressure, or put the responsibility on the team of taking care of the returning athlete. Let them know they have their comfort zone, they can talk to the coach if they are feeling overwhelmed.
Again, just like in preventing, keep the lines of communication open. Ask if anyone else has these feelings or would like to talk about the incident. Give them the option to talk to you. Ask the parent of the athlete if it is okay to let other parents know about the suicide attempt. Parents need to know, and they need to be aware of the signs. You don’t have to give away the identity of the person and never share the details. This is about awareness and sharing resources.