Pushing Through the Discomfort: Starting a Conversation About Suicide OER

Trigger warning: Suicide is an exceptionally difficult concept for many people. This article is to share a newly adapted resource from BCcampus to help students gain important skills and experience to use should they engage with someone who is at risk of suicide.

There’s a new open educational resource (OER) now available to help anyone connected to students in post-secondary institutions in B.C., across the nation, and around the world. Starting a Conversation About Suicide: Foundational Training for Students is now available for adoption and adaptation through BCcampus. While the resource is phenomenal, today we’re celebrating the creative team that came together to develop this resource we’re proudly sharing.

Post by the BCcampus editorial team

Mental health has been a focus for an ongoing series of projects at BCcampus, with topics covering COVID-19, student mental health and wellness, general mental health, and now a pair of essential resources about the sensitive topic of suicide. Let’s Talk About Suicide: Raising Awareness and Supporting Students — Facilitator’s Guide for Use with Faculty and Staff (released last fall) and the newest resource, Starting a Conversation About Suicide: Foundational Training for Students — Facilitator’s Guide for Use with Students, are now available as part of the BCcampus mental health and wellness synchronous training bundle.

A huge reason for the success of these resources is the combined efforts of a core group of professionals. There were many contributors, but we’d love to give a huge thanks to Dawn Schell, Jewell Gillies, Matty Hillman, Liz Warwick, Barbara Johnston, and Kaitlyn Zheng for continuing to dig deep to help these resources be the best we can provide for faculty, staff, and students throughout the province.

The suicide awareness OER are adaptations from work completed by Dawn Schell, manager of mental-health outreach and training at the University of Victoria. “We create a culture of caring on our campuses when we equip ourselves to have conversations with our students or colleagues about their mental health and well-being,” said Dawn.

“This project, and the ones connected to it, are a thoughtful journey of learning toward reconciliation, decolonization, and Indigenization, with an open team of professionals who were constantly seeking ways to improve the resources,” said Michelle Glubke, senior project manager of Collaborative Projects and Indigenous Engagement at BCcampus. “The team was fully present and clearly dedicated to honouring and supporting the student contributions throughout the collaboration.”

Starting the Conversation

“There are major societal and cultural hang-ups and stigma about talking about suicide,” shared Matty Hillman, an instructor at Selkirk College. “While resources and supports are important, the first step is to have a more accepting and compassionate culture — a society that makes it safe for people to talk about suicide in order for them to get the support they need. If you’re not comfortable and safe in your environment, whether that’s your home, campus, or city, it’s hard to get to that next step of support.”

“This resource emphasizes the importance of talking about suicide,” shared Barbara Johnston of West Coast Editorial. “If you’re talking to someone who is in a dark place or crisis, it is absolutely okay to ask, ‘Are you okay? Are you thinking about suicide?’ Many people think asking about suicide will give a person the idea they should take their own life, but that’s not true. You’re giving them a chance to open up, and that can make such a difference. If you break it down — and I think this resource does that well — there are steps we can all take to help others and prevent a suicide or simply help someone who’s in a dark place have a better day and get the help they need. No one should ever feel the responsibility of having to solve another person’s problems. You can listen with empathy and then provide suggestions of where they can seek help.”

This resource isn’t to help anyone become a counsellor or caregiver; it’s designed to help people recognize and acknowledge that someone is in a difficult place and might need help finding the right support. “You can be supportive of somebody through empathetic listening and by asking that difficult question of ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’” shared Liz Warwick, instructional designer with Limestone Learning. “But at the same time, you don’t have to become overwhelmed by it, and if you are overwhelmed, you too can look for help. It’s so important that we gift this resource to students who otherwise might find themselves in a position where they are confused and lost and want to help but don’t know how.”

Why Talk About Suicide?

The Starting a Conversation About Suicide OER includes a section that dives deep into the myths and misunderstandings around suicide, bringing facts and logic to this frequently taboo topic and revealing that many factors, especially racism and other forms of discrimination, can have a significant impact on a student’s mental health, potentially leading to an increased risk of depression or suicide, increased levels of anxiety, stress-related illnesses, and post-traumatic stress disorder. “This resource is critical training, especially for racialized students,” said Jagjeet Kaur Gill, an advisory group member from Langara College. “I hope it’s widely adopted.” 

Informed by Student Input 

Student participation in the development of these resources was a vital component of why they’re so valuable and actionable. “These trainings have included students throughout the creation process,” said Matty. “We want to connect with the audience that it’s for, and that’s possible by including them in the creation process.”

“Throughout this project, we had multiple people reviewing and offering suggestions,” said Barbara. “We had feedback from students, instructors, and counsellors representing post-secondary institutions across the province, including programs from rural institutions and large universities. These different perspectives helped us massage and refine the resources. It was a fascinating and very informative process.” 

Better with Every Adoption

Grounded in research on mental health and how best to support others, these resources are intended to be adapted by the institutions using them. They can contextualize the resources to their environment and students, whether they’re a rural institution or in the heart of a metropolitan centre. 

“The challenges that students are facing, regardless of the size of the community they’re in, come from so many directions,” said Liz. “It’s stressful. It’s difficult, and yet there’s an opportunity through this training to really help people reach out. I think there’s also that desire among students, faculty, and staff to say, ‘We know we can be part of the solution. We can help these students without becoming social workers or counsellors.’ That’s not the role. We emphasize that within the guide, but we also acknowledge that everyone has a role to play; they just need a few more skills, a little more knowledge, and the confidence to start the conversation.” 

Lean into the Discomfort

When it comes to working with materials that contain an Indigenous perspective, sometimes non-Indigenous faculty and instructors are concerned they’re misappropriating knowledge by presenting the materials themselves. “I want them to be reassured that all the Indigenous content that’s in this body of work is voiced by me,” shared Jewell Gillies, Indigenous Student Services coordinator at Okanagan College. “It’s an Indigenous perspective, certainly not representative of the entirety of Indigenous voices in Canada, or even the entirety of my own nation, but the whole point of this — and the whole point of any kind of academic learning — is that you’re taking a singular person’s perspective and sharing that as a body of knowledge. You are fully welcome, as non-Indigenous instructors, to take the knowledge within this course and share it. Tell your learners that you’re ‘Scottish and Scandinavian, and learning this stuff as you go.’ Let them know the materials were written by an Indigenous writer. If that is all you do in your academic career —humbly learn how to be an advocate as a faculty member in a classroom — then you are fulfilling a significant piece of a call to action as a person and as a professional. That’s low-hanging fruit with some pretty big impact. Have the courage to lean into the discomfort of teaching third-party knowledge: adopting a traditional knowledge transfer system that Indigenous peoples have done for generations. I don’t know how better faculty or instructors could adopt Indigenous pedagogy than educating through story. They just need to get comfortable with it and be humble in front of their students.”

Powered by Pressbooks

Like most of the OER produced by BCcampus, this guide was built with Pressbooks, an authoring and editing platform designed for educators. “Pressbooks is something we have been using for a long time,” said Kaitlyn Zheng, open textbook publishing coordinator at BCcampus. “It’s a good platform for publishing textbooks, especially when we have a lot of H5P interactivities. Through this particular project, we discovered some creative and interesting ways to make H5P accessible and available not just for Pressbooks but also for the exported PDFs and ePubs. I can see these resources being used by more and more people not just in B.C. and not just in post-secondary institutions but for more of a general audience, helping them feel comfortable with starting a conversation about suicide, knowing they have resources to share with the person they’re concerned about.”

Notable Quote(s):

“No one should ever feel the responsibility of having to solve another person’s problems, but you can listen with empathy and then provide suggestions of where they can seek help.”

 Barbara Johnston, West Coast Editorial Associates 

“Trainings like this are for counsellors, educators, and students but also for custodial staff, hairdressers, and bus drivers: everyone who comes in contact with anyone else. The more people who have a basic understanding of mental health and mental health literacy, the safer and more compassionate our communities will be.” 

— Matty Hillman, instructor, Selkirk College

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The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Ray Bilcliff