Safety Planning (from the July 2021 Newsletter) – Jared Auten

Safety is certainly a concept on many people’s minds as we continue to reopen our country in the wake of the global pandemic. This current transitionary period highlights how a crisis, at a minimum, discombobulates us and leaves us feeling out of sorts. Instead of feeling calm and collected during these times, we might be figuratively filling the car with toilet paper or denying the fact that there is a problem in the first place (maybe this analogy is just too literal). The point is that planning for safety doesn’t have to be a reactionary response or an afterthought.

Now, safety planning as it relates to suicide prevention and intervention isn’t the same as getting ready for a global pandemic like a doomsday-prepper, but it does entail the same basic principal: If we thoughtfully prepare and plan for a crisis, then the outcome can be improved and the intensity of the experience can be reduced.

Safety planning is a preventative strategy for managing individual suicide risk and mental health crises. It is something we can do for ourselves or collaboratively with a loved one or mental health/ healthcare professional. Using basic strategies and thinking about and writing out a plan, we’re working to recognize existing protective factors and reduce risk factors during a crisis.

It goes like this:

Consider a moment of crisis. It doesn’t have to be a crisis that includes suicidal thoughts, but it can. As we profess, a crisis is self-defined and unique to the individual.

Now, what are your personal warning signs that lead up to that moment of crisis? Are there feelings of worry, anxiety, panic, or fear? What bodily sensations or thoughts will you notice? Are there specific situations, like an unexpected financial expense or job related stress that activate these feelings or thoughts? Do suicidal thoughts trickle in or hit you like a wave? What’s your experience and how will you know when a safety plan will be useful?

Now that we’ve painted a picture of what the crisis might look like, think about your internal coping strategies. These are things you already do without thinking about them or do intentionally to bring your body and mind in balance. Again, there’s no right way to do it and it’s whatever works for you. You might consider things that help distract you from anxious or suicidal thoughts. Distraction doesn’t mean ignoring the feelings or issue, rather it means engaging in any type of mental or physical activity that provides relief, even if for a brief amount of time. These are things, like watching your favorite TV series, doing a craft, singing, etc., that you can readily and reliably do for yourself to manage intense emotions and thoughts.

Don’t worry, it’s not encouraged that you manage a full blown crisis solo. If the coping skills you’ve practiced aren’t doing the trick to help manage the crisis, we want to know who we can reach out to help distract or be available to directly assist us in managing the crisis. I think of these as two different groups. For example, maybe you have that friend you can count on to send you funny cat memes at any hour of the day. And you also have that family member who knows the struggle so you can connect and talk about the emotions and crisis you’re experiencing. It’s also recommended that you let those folks know in some way, shape, or form that they’re part of your support system.

Next, if you have mental health or healthcare professionals in your life, they can, and totally should, be on your list. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Having some type of emergency and 24/7 support is recommended and you can add them to the list of contacts on your safety plan. If you don’t have a therapist in your life or if you’re not sure about what to do after offices are closed, go ahead and jot down HQ’s number (785-841-2345).

This next part is pretty important because there are several practical things we can do to increase our safety during a crisis, especially a crisis related to suicide. As you may know, suicidal thoughts can include specific thoughts, images, and varying levels of planning and severity related to how a person might kill themselves. What the research shows us is that we can significantly increase our safety by creating some time and distance between ourselves and what we’ve thought about using to kill ourselves.

This is especially important when it comes to firearms and other lethal means. So take a moment to consider what steps you can take to increase your safety by reducing your access to lethal means or other means of harm. Maybe it looks like having a trusted friend hold onto your firearm or creating multiple layers of security with a safe and locks. Get creative and engage someone you trust to provide support.

Again, maybe those people are the volunteers at HQ. It may also be helpful to identify spaces in the community, outside, in your home, or in a loved one’s home that feel safe and offer time to return to a place of balance.

Finally, you can take a second to think about the one thing, or couple things, that is most important to you in this moment. Only you get to decide what is important to you and there is no right or wrong answer.

One person might identify their reason for living is their relationship with a partner. Another might identify, today, it’s spending time with a pet or finishing the book they started. Recognizing what’s important to us during a crisis, or any time for that matter, is a simple strategy we can use to try to slow things down a bit and de-clutter our thoughts. 

If you read through this, then you have thought about what you can do to manage a crisis and thus, just engaged in a form of safety planning. Well done!

If you’d find it helpful to write out your safety plan, then feel free to use the guide on our website, talk to a mental health/ healthcare professional, call HQ, or consider using a mobile safety planning app like My3.

Maybe you’ll never need to look at your safety plan again, or maybe it will be ready when you need it in an accessible place at your home or on your phone. Think of having a safety plan like having a well-stocked supply of toilet paper; you can check-in on it and it’s always there if you need it.