How to save a life

by Arna Delle-Vergini

how to save a life

Step 1

It’s Saturday morning and when the alarm goes off I’ve got one sleeping child draped around my legs, another sleeping child draped around my upper body and I am very much feeling like a python has crept into my room during the night and wrapped me in a deadly serpentine embrace. My first thought is just the word: “caught”. Then I think: “how lovely to be ensnared by two such divine creatures”. And then I think: “what would I ever do without them?” When I say goodbye to them that morning I tell them I love them and they yell back “not as much as we love you”. It’s a game we play – ‘who loves who the most’. It’s the little things.

Step 2

Owen Dixon Chambers East. I am one of six barristers attending ‘Mental Health First Aid’. It’s called ‘Mental Health First Aid’ because we are not allowed to use the word ‘suicide’ when advertising the training. The course is really ‘Suicide Prevention Training’ but the Victorian Bar are nervous about advertising it in that way because seeing the word ‘suicide’ might cause a barrister who is contemplating suicide to take their own life.

The first thing we learn is that it is a complete myth that talking about suicide with someone who is at risk will give them the idea to suicide or increase the chances that they will. In fact, using the “s” word – is a protective factor. We learn that to actually directly talk about suicide will actually save lives. Other myths about suicide get shot down one by one. Did you know that normal people, not just people with mental illnesses, contemplate and commit suicide? It’s also a myth that most suicides occur without warning. In fact, in 80% of cases, there are definite warning signs. Another myth is that people who threaten to commit suicide are just trying to gain attention or are selfish or weak. It turns out it takes a tremendous amount of courage to kill yourself.

Step 3

No training is complete without stats of course so we are told that globally there is one death by suicide every 40 seconds. In Australia, someone takes his or her life every 3.5 hours. Those most at risk of completing suicide are men. People aged over 85+ represent the highest category of completed suicides and… (no one is very surprised by this)… there is a much greater representation of suicide in indigenous communities. In young people suicide is one of the three leading causes of death. The other two are homicide and accidents.

Step 4

Eventually we have to talk about the young Victorian Barrister who took her own life a few months ago. We still have questions. We still don’t understand it. We are told that we never will and the hardest thing of all for people who are touched by the suicide of another is being left with all of the unanswered questions. We are told that to support people touched by suicide we need to learn how to be comfortable sitting with their anxiety around those unanswered questions. We discuss how, as lawyers, we are trained problem solvers and how difficult (read impossible) this feels for us at times. This applies to sitting with other people’s anxiety around unanswered questions as well as our own.

Uncomfortable with the not knowing, we pester the facilitator to give us some kind of definition of suicide. What is suicide, apart from the obvious, being the voluntary taking of our lives?

Fortunately, on this point, there is an answer.

Step 5

Suicide is a solution. The person who chooses to suicide believes that this is their only solution. They reach a stage where their pain is greater than their resources to solve their problem. They usually perceive themselves as being burdensome to others. And they are feeling helpless and hopeless. They choose this solution because they know it will work when nothing else has. And yet, they are deeply ambivalent about their choice. They desperately want an alternative. They just can’t see one. They want to live. They actually want to be rescued.

Step 6

At one point we make a collective decision not to record the training session because one of the participants begins to share a story about being in a ‘dark place’ once. We become very protective of this participant. An observation is made that barristers are very protective of one another and that we came to this training because we want to know how to look after one another. It’s important to us. We just don’t know how to go about it.

First, we are reassured that just to care is the first step.

Then we are taught how to save a life.

Step 7

It’s the little things. Like noticing when something is not right with someone. Being vigilant about people who have experienced a traumatic event that might act as a triggering event or catalyst. Following up on obvious clues that someone is felling suicide like him or her telling you they can’t go on. Or less obvious clues like them withdrawing or giving away their belongings. Being prepared to have a difficult conversation about their health and well being and making sure you have the courage to directly ask the question: are you contemplating suicide? Giving them your full attention. Being warm and supportive and non-judgmental. In a nutshell – acting like an empathic human being.

Did we really need training to learn what should be so obvious?

Step 8

And what about the lives that can’t be saved? What about the 20% of people who show no signs? Or the people who you respond to with love and care whom suicide anyway?

We are back now to the unanswered questions: the mystery of it all.

The facilitator reminds us that often when people suicide, their loved ones are not able to grieve freely. Other loved ones who are also suffering sometimes judge them harshly: surely you could have seen they were suffering and done something. Why didn’t you do something? And worse, they often judge themselves…if only…if only…if only. They float on a sea of unanswered questions and the best they can do is hope that one day they will learn to live with the lack of answers; the closest approximation to peace they are likely to ever experience again.

Step 9

Of course before we leave we must face the fact that despite our training experience, we are still just as terrified. Whilst we know a little more than we did before, no one is completely immune. Any one of us could lose a loved one to suicide. We lost a colleague recently. Next time it could be closer to home. And whilst, we may see the warning signs and save their life, we may not.

And so we re-commit to keeping our eyes open to people’s suffering. We re-commit to really being there for people when we recognise someone is floundering. We commit to having real conversations with people. And we re-commit to loving our family and friends ever so fiercely because we never truly know how long we will have the gift of them in our lives: how long they will be around to ensnare us with their smiling face, their deadly serpentine embrace.


* If you are having thoughts of suicide please call either the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 for free telephone counseling, LIFELINE 13 11 14 or Mensline 1300 78 99 78.

** Many thanks to our amazing facilitator – Psychotherapist, Cheryl Taylor –

*** The Salvation Army runs Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention Training all over Australia, free of charge, through its Hope for Life program. For more information email: