Creating a Safe Learning Space
Participants need to feel comfortable, safe, and respected during the session. As you prepare to facilitate, consider factors such as when and where to hold the training, key messages on promotional materials, whether to use group guidelines, how to ensure diverse representation, and ways of working with co-facilitators or guests. Keep in mind that some participants may have strong emotional responses during the session, and you will need to be prepared for this. Consider in advance ways to support participants. Can you arrange a quiet place where they can go if they need a break from the session? Will you have a co-facilitator to go and check on them? Or perhaps you can arrange for another participant to check on anyone who leaves the session and stay with them to make sure they’re okay.
This section provides several strategies to help create a positive learning space.
Opening with Intention
Facilitators have an enormous role to play in setting the tone for a session. As people enter the space (online or in person), you can welcome them and help them get oriented. You can let them know if you’ve started or whether you’re waiting for a few more people, and share housekeeping information such as where the bathrooms are, where they can put their things, or how to use online interactive features. You may want to consider using a breathing exercise together or an icebreaker activity to help put people at ease. As you begin the session, you can use opening questions that help create inclusivity, such as correct pronouns, check-in questions, or information about accessibility needs and requests.
Scope of the Session
It is important to hold space in a session for people’s feelings and experiences – shared or not. However, boundaries are also needed to allow the session to move forward and be completed within the stated time frame.
It is also important to establish at the beginning that the training is a learning space and not a counselling session. (You may also want to send an email with this message to all participants prior to the session.) If a participant is starting to take over the discussion with their personal experiences, you can gently redirect the conversation back to the material that you need to cover. Plan to stay after the session is over to talk to any participants one-on-one.
It’s also important to reassure participants who worry that they must “save” a student who is in distress. Emphasize that students are not expected to be counsellors or to “fix” a student who’s experiencing mental health problems.
It can be helpful to ask participants to agree to a list of guidelines or a code of conduct when they register for the session. You can either send the group guidelines to participants before the session or take some time at the beginning of the session to establish the guidelines together. When you start the session, you can ask participants if they feel comfortable with the guidelines or if they have something they would like to add or change.
Group guidelines can be an important tool for supporting safer discussion about difficult topics. You can remind participants of the guidelines if the discussion is getting difficult. Important group agreements relate to listening to and showing respect for others (e.g., not talking when others are speaking, not making rude comments, not talking on the phone), confidentiality, and participation.
It’s also important to establish guidelines about how much people will share. Suicide is a topic that can provoke a strong emotional response in some people and remind them of past experiences.
Group guidelines come in all shapes and sizes. Some groups have a few guidelines, while others have many. Here are some suggestions for possible guidelines:
- Share the learning, not the names or the stories (confidentiality).
- Participants have the right to “pass” on activities/questions that feel uncomfortable.
- It is all right to feel uncomfortable or to not know answers to everything.
- It is okay to step out of the session at any time.
- Treat others with respect.
- Be mindful of your language; respect everyone’s names and pronouns.
- Remember that there may be participants in the session who know someone who has either attempted suicide or died by suicide, and there may be participants who have attempted suicide or are having thoughts of suicide. The session may bring up strong emotions for them.
- Speak for yourself. Use “I statements” to state opinions or feelings.
- Seek to replace judgment with curiosity.
- Take care of yourself.
- Take space, make space (allow everyone a chance to participate).
Content warnings (also called trigger warnings) are statements made before sharing potentially difficult or challenging material. The intent of content warnings is to provide participants with the opportunity to prepare themselves emotionally for engaging with the topic or to make a choice to not participate.
Different departments and institutions will have different approaches to content warnings, and this may guide your decision about including content warnings on registration or sign-up forms, in learning materials, and in the learning environment. Here is an example of a content warning:
We will be discussing topics related to suicide in this training. During the training, you can choose not to participate in certain activities or discussions and can leave the room at any time. If you feel upset or overwhelmed, please know that there are resources to support you.
There are a number of other facilitation strategies you may want to consider in addition to or instead of a content warning:
- When discussing difficult content, check in with participants from time to time. Ask them how they are doing, whether they need a break, and so on. Let them know that you are aware that the content is difficult.
- Ask participants to be mindful of their fellow learners during the discussion and remind them that survivors of suicide may be present in the room (regardless of whether this information has been shared with others).
Some participants may know someone who has taken their own life or may have attempted suicide themselves. There are a number of strategies you can use to help create a trauma-aware learning space.
Before the Session
Sometimes, during training on suicide awareness, a participant may be reminded of someone they have lost through suicide. Before you start facilitating, ensure that you are knowledgeable about receiving disclosures and about available supports and resources on campus and in the community. Some institutions have developed practices such as expedited counselling for participants who might need support after a training session, or making intensive crisis supports available for a short time after a training session or other initiative.
At the beginning of the session, acknowledge that the topic of suicide is difficult and let participants know that they have the right and freedom to take care of themselves in a way that works for them. In particular, let participants know that they can leave the room or choose not to participate in an activity. You could say something like “If at any time you feel you need to leave, that’s fine with me. You are empowered to take care of yourself.” You can also let participants know that reactions to difficult material can sometimes be delayed and that they may wish to connect with you a few days after the training or to access support from family, friends, or other people in their lives.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can share information about grounding activities that may be helpful to participants during the session. Grounding activities, such as breathing exercises, are simple activities that can help people relax, stay present, and reconnect with the “here and now” following a trauma response – for example, pressing or “rooting” your feet into the ground, breathing slowly in and out for a count of two, repeating a statement such as “I am safe now, I can relax,” or using your five senses to describe the environment in detail.
During the Session
If you notice that a participant has left the group and you suspect that they were reminded of previous trauma by something in the session, follow up with them one-on-one after the session to check in and offer any resources that you think might be helpful to them.
During the session, if the conversation becomes intense or you believe that a number of participants have become overwhelmed or affected by the discussion, it can be helpful to take a break or use an activity that involves the body or movement to help people reconnect with the present moment.
Let participants know that you will be available after the training if they would like to debrief or share their responses to the session or how they are feeling. Schedule at least 30 minutes after a session so that you can be available to participants. If you are delivering the training online, let participants know that they can private message or email you.
Participants may need some time near the end of the session to ask questions, share a reflection, or simply sit with what they have heard and discussed. If possible, try to ensure that this time is built in at the end so no one feels rushed when concluding the session.
After the Session
Plan to stay after the session to talk to any participants who have questions or concerns they want to discuss. If you are concerned about a participant, ask them if they would find it helpful for you to check in with them later in the day or the following day. You could also ask them if they have a friend or family member that they might find it helpful to speak with after the session. If so, help them make a plan to connect with them by phone, text, or in person or at a certain time.
For more information on trauma-informed practice, see the BCcampus recorded webinar Trauma-Informed Facilitation, by Dawn Schell, and the Education Northwest resource Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide, by Shannon Davidson.
Questions That May Come Up and How to Respond
Facilitating conversations about suicide can be challenging. Participants likely bring many different experiences, assumptions, ideas, and worries about how best to support students who are struggling with these issues.
It’s important to create a space where participants feel safe and supported so they share and listen to others with respect and empathy. This section offers ideas and tips for creating such an environment, but you also have a time limit within which to present the material. It’s important to keep an eye on the clock and know how, and when, to direct participants’ attention to the next topic.
As mental health and wellness affects all parts of our lives, participants may bring up related issues or concerns, or they may disclose that they have attempted suicide or someone they know has taken their own life or attempted suicide. Below are some questions that might come up during the session, with suggestions for responses. The goal is to acknowledge participants’ comments, thank them for their contribution, and point them to resources they may find helpful. Then the discussion can move back to the specific topic at hand.
- I have a friend who has mentioned they are considering suicide and it made me feel helpless and worried. Will this training actually help me?
- Thank the participant for asking this question, as it’s a worry many people have.
- Acknowledge that it is never comfortable to talk to another person about suicide, but the training will help them feel better equipped to help and more confident if they have to talk to a person they are worried about.
- Explain that they will learn ways to begin and end a sensitive conversation and they will have a chance to practise.
- Remind them that the most important thing they can do is listen empathetically to a student who is distressed and know where to refer them. They are not expected to be a counsellor.
- A friend of mine told me they are thinking of ending it all, but then begged me not to tell anyone. What should I do?
- Acknowledge that this is not an uncommon situation and that it can be very stressful and isolating to help someone and feel that you can’t reach out for support yourself.
- Encourage the participant to reach out for help, even though their friend has asked them not to tell anyone. They can talk to a counsellor or get advice from a crisis line.
- There will be procedures in place for students who are employees of the post-secondary institution (e.g., residence assistants or teaching assistants) and are required to report their concerns if another student discloses that they are thinking about suicide.
- Invite the participant to talk with you after the session for further assistance.
- I don’t feel like I can deal with a student who is so distressed that they are considering suicide. What should I do?
- Remind participants that no one is being asked to take responsibility for another person’s well-being.
- Explain that the training explores the role that participants can play in helping another student, but only if they feel comfortable and ready to engage with a student who is expressing thoughts of suicide or showing signs that they are suicidal.
- Suggest that if any participants still have concerns after the session, they should come and talk with you for further guidance.
- I live with someone who gets depressed and sometimes talks about ending it all. What should I do?
- Thank the participant for sharing their concerns.
- Explain that they are not expected to take on the role of counsellor or to take on additional responsibilities. The goal is to create awareness.
- Emphasize that this session is intended to give everyone tools so they will know how to respond to a person in crisis and refer them to appropriate help.
- Point out that it is better to be prepared. Anyone may deal with a person in crisis at some point.
- I tried to help a friend who was talking about suicide and they just got angry with me. Our friendship has suffered.
- Acknowledge that the participant has had a negative experience in the past. Focus their attention on the present: by attending this session they can perhaps discover other ways of supporting others while maintaining good boundaries.
- Invite the participant to talk with you after the session. You can suggest that the participant talk to a counsellor.
- I’ve read that the suicide rate for young people is very high. Why isn’t this institution doing more to support students struggling with mental health?
- Acknowledge in a respectful way the participant’s commitment to students’ well-being.
- Let them know that you’ll be sharing resources that are available currently.
- Invite them to meet with you after the session to share ideas for how the institution could do better.
- What about support for my own mental health and well-being?
- Acknowledge the importance of the issue being raised: we all sometimes face our own challenges around mental health and well-being.
- Let participants know that there are institutional and community resources available to them, and you can provide those after the session.
Transitions and Difficult Conversations
While facilitating, you are likely to encounter challenging moments when you may not be sure how to respond. Someone may start to dominate the discussion with their own story of suicide, a participant may make a negative remark about suicide, or the conversation may shift in a direction that makes you concerned for the comfort of other participants.
Here are some potential responses for bringing participants back to the topic or handling challenging moments:
- “This is a really great dialogue, but I would like to bring us back to the topic at hand.”
- “Thank you for sharing that story. I’d like to follow up with you after the session today if we can save this conversation for later.”
- “I’m getting conscious of time here. Let’s move on for now.”
- “Your feelings are important and I want to be able to give you my full attention. Would you like to step out and have a conversation about it? My colleague can continue with the session.” (This can work if there are two co-facilitators. If there is only one facilitator, you can suggest continuing the conversation after the session.)
- “We’re not here today to argue about the ethics or morality of suicide. We want to focus on questions, feelings, worries, and thoughts people might have about supporting someone who is at risk of suicide.”
- “It’s okay for us to agree to disagree. Let’s move on; I’d like to bring us back to some of the activities and questions we had planned.”
A Note About Language
Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide or presents it as a solution to problems. For example, the terms “failed attempt,” “successful attempt,” or “completed attempt” are best avoided, as they depict suicide as a goal, project, or solution. Below are some guidelines for language when talking about suicide.
|Avoid Using||Use Instead||Reason|
Note: If you are unsure of a participant’s level of proficiency in English, it is better to use the direct terms “killed themselves” or “ended their life” instead of “suicide.”
|Using the word “commit” implies that suicide is a crime (we commit crimes). This perpetuates stigma, and stigma stops people from talking. People will be less likely to talk about their suicidal feelings if they feel judged.|
||People who have attempted suicide often say, “I couldn’t even do that right… I was unsuccessful, I failed.” In part, this comes from unhelpful language around their suicide behaviour. Any attempt at suicide is serious. People should not be further burdened by whether their attempt was a failure, which in turn suggests that they are a failure.|
|Successful or completed suicide||
||Talking about suicide in terms of success is not helpful. If a person dies by suicide, it cannot ever be a success. We don’t talk about any other death in terms of success: we would never talk about a successful heart attack or stroke.|
Self-Care and Community Care
Self-care and community care are about looking after yourself and those around you. The experience of facilitating a session on suicide can range from satisfying and rewarding to challenging and overwhelming. It is important to make sure that you are able to take the time to take care of yourself and that you are willing to reach out to co-workers, friends, and family, or for professional support if needed.
Ideally, you will be in a situation where you are able to deliver the training with a co-facilitator. Not only is this helpful if a participant needs support during a session, but it also helps to have someone with whom to share the joys and challenges of facilitation. Plan for time after a session to check in with each other about your experiences and any successes or challenges in facilitating. This allows for time to reflect on issues related to your own mental health, to consider any feedback that you received from participants, and to discuss any facilitation successes and challenges. If you are facilitating alone, you might use the time after a session to reflect or use a journal to make notes as a way of processing the experience, or you may want to debrief with a colleague or counsellor.
Check-In/Reflection Questions for Facilitators
Taking time after a session to debrief can be a helpful way to care for yourself. Here are some sample debriefing questions.
- What was a positive moment or a success in this session?
- How did participants engage with the different activities? Is there something I want to facilitate or do differently next time?
- Did I or a participant seem to have a response to the material, a shared story, or another participant that was challenging? If so, how was it responded to or resolved?
- Is there something that would be helpful for me to learn about or check with a colleague about?
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Provides information and resources to communities to reduce the suicide rate and minimize the harmful consequences of suicidal behaviour.
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): Has many resources around suicide awareness, including a Get Help page with information on crisis lines and immediate help.
- Centre for Suicide Prevention: A branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association that provides information and resources on how to respond to people at risk of suicide. Offers toolkits, information sheets, and training resources.
- HeadsUpGuys: An online resource from the University of British Columbia that supports men in their fight against depression by providing tips, tools, information about professional services, and stories of success. Supports men’s mental health in a positive, inclusive, and mutually supportive way and is for people of all backgrounds, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
- Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, B.C. Children’s Hospital: Provides mental health and substance use information, resources, and peer support for youth and young adults. Also provides information and resources for people of all ages with an eating disorder or disordered eating concern.
- LifeLine Canada App: A free suicide prevention and awareness app that offers access to support and guidance for people in crisis and people who have suffered the devastating loss of a loved one from suicide.
- Live Through This: A website with a collection of personal stories from people who have attempted suicide and survived. The diverse voices illustrate that suicide can affect anyone, and reading some of these stories is a helpful way to prepare for the session.
- LivingWorks ASIST Suicide Prevention Training Program: Offers workshops on how to prevent suicide by recognizing signs, how to provide a skilled intervention, and how to develop a safety plan.
- Mental Health Commission of Canada: Offers a number of fact sheets, research reports, and webinars on suicide prevention.
- Self-Injury Outreach and Support: A non-profit outreach initiative providing information and resources about self-injury to those who self-injure, those who have recovered, and those who want to help.
- South Asian Mental Health (SOCH): A mental health promotion initiative tailored to provide the South Asian community with mental health support and start the conversation to break the stigma around mental health. The Pardesi Project, a film about the mental health of South Asian international students, is available on their website.
- The Trevor Project – Saving Young LGBTQ Lives: The world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.
- We Matter Campaign: An Indigenous, youth-led, nationally registered organization dedicated to Indigenous youth support, hope, and life promotion.
- “Creating a Safe Learning Space,” “Trauma Awareness,” and “Self-Care and Community Care” are adapted from Consent & Sexualized Violence Training and Facilitator Guide: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in B.C. Post-Secondary Institutions, Sexual Violence Training Development Team (CC BY 4.0 License).