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Families dealing with losses due to wildfires or other catastrophes can feel emotionally overwhelmed.

 

Their mental health is one of the most important resources to deal with first. The risk for additional harm – even suicide – is significant.

 

“We know from previous natural disasters, including last year’s wildfire season, that there’s a need for mental health awareness and support right now for affected families,” said Matt Brosi, Oklahoma State University Extension marriage and family specialist.

 

Mental Health First Aid USA, a program of the nonprofit National Program for Behavioral Health, recommends a short mental health assessment with the mnemonic ALGEE:

 

  • Assess for risk of suicide.
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information.
  • Encourage appropriate professional help.
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

 

It is okay to ask if someone is having thoughts about self-harm and death. You want to know if they have an active plan, which would include details such as when and how. Discussion and active listening is vital.

 

“Asking how someone feels does not create suicidal thoughts,” said Brosi, who also is a licensed marital and family therapist and director of the OSU Marriage and Family Therapy program.

 

Listening nonjudgmentally involves providing a safe environment for someone to express their distress. Creating that safe space for freedom of expression can ultimately help save a person’s life.

 

“Letting the person know you’re concerned and willing to help is crucial,” Brosi said. “The acute risk for suicide is often time limited. Helping someone survive the immediate crisis goes a long way toward promoting a positive outcome.”

 

Other warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about unbearable pain, having no reason to live or feeling trapped.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Engaging in reckless behavior.
  • Withdrawing from normal pleasurable activities or isolating from family and friends.
  • Lack of feeling good or bad.
  • Irritability, anxiety or depression.

 

In giving reassurance and information, try to normalize a person’s stressful experience and offer hope for recovery by using supportive statements such as, “Given the situation, of course you’re feeling overwhelmed.”

 

Take care to avoid minimizing someone’s feelings by saying things like, “This too shall pass,” or by using sarcasm as a deflecting tool.

 

Encourage distressed family members and friends to seek appropriate professional help as well as to engage in self-help and other strategies. Speaking to a doctor, counselor, therapist or other medical professional with experience in mental health as well as connecting with family, friends, pastors and other social networks can be hugely helpful. Exercising, trying relaxation strategies and seeking peer support groups are other good options to combat mental health struggles in general.

 

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides several avenues of assistance specific to Oklahoma. Trained staff at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255 any time of the day.

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