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The Role of OT in Suicide Prevention

Sometimes occupational deprivation, as a result of illness or injury, can be a catalyst for suicidal thoughts, or even actions. While this may be a heavy topic, we’re here to talk about how Occupational Therapists can make a positive difference in the lives of people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention reports that 1 out of every 10 Canadians experience thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives. Occupational Therapists work with people who have experienced a loss of ability to complete everyday life tasks. When a person can no longer work, care for their children, or even go to the bathroom independently, it is easy to understand how thoughts of suicide can seem like an option. The good news is that Occupational Therapists are in the perfect role for addressing these types of situations, and inspiring positive outcomes.

When people have experienced a sudden disability onset like in a motor vehicle accident, we often hear statements like:


·        “I can’t do anything anymore”

·        “This isn’t how it was supposed to be”

·        “I’m missing out”

·        “I’m lost”

·        “I don’t know what to do”

The common thread in all of these statements is that people feel hopeless, and are experiencing occupational deprivation. Occupational deprivation is when a person feels that they can’t participate in meaningful activities due to factors beyond their control.  If this feeling gets strong enough, some people begin to feel that they may be better off ending their lives.  Occupational Therapists are skilled at enabling occupation, so it is easy to see how OT’s  play an integral role in addressing suicide.

One strategy proposed by Kim Hewitt, a leading OT in suicide prevention, is to ask the following question:  

“Do you want to die, or do you not want to live like this anymore?

This question fosters hope in people who are struggling, and it also leads to action; if a person does not want to live like this anymore, they simply need help to make some changes in their lives.  Occupational Therapists can then use their skills in occupational engagement to bring hope into the suicide discussion, and to try to address some of the negative thoughts and emotions the person is feeling.

Remember that occupations are defined not just as paid jobs, but also as things we do that occupy our time.  Occupations can include cooking a meal, going to the bank, or reading a book.  Occupational Therapists therefore give people solutions for living, so that they have all the skills and tools necessary to re-engage in these meaningful life activities. This type of therapy takes time, and sometimes trial and error, but in the end it can help people get back to feeling like themselves again.  These positive feelings can help to combat thoughts of suicide.

Not everyone has training in suicide prevention, but it is a responsibility we all share; someone may approach you about it whether you’re ready or not.  Here are some basic strategies to consider if someone brings up suicide with you:

  • If a person discloses thoughts of suicide to you, they want help, or else they wouldn’t have talked to you about it. This is a compliment – don’t be afraid.
  • Listen to what the person is telling you. Don’t try to relate, or offer false promises like “you’ll feel better tomorrow.” Just listen to them.
  • It’s okay if you don’t know what to do at first. You can tell the person that you want to help because you care about them, but you’re not sure how. Offer to stay with them, call a crisis line with them, or call 911 for professional assistance.
  • Remember this is a medical emergency, just like a heart attack or loss of consciousness – you need to do something.

Our motto at Entwistle Power Occupational Therapy is hope, empower, succeed, and I can’t think of any better population this applies to than people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

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