We just didn’t see that coming

Article Featured in FIREFighting IN CANADA

November 7, 2022

By Patrick J. Kenny 

How many times have you heard someone say, “We just didn’t see that coming.” I’ve heard it far too often and usually relating to personal tragedy, loss, and suicide. As a speaker on mental health and suicide, I have had the honour of speaking to audiences from various backgrounds, including first responders, government leaders, mental health professionals and youth groups for more than 13 years.

Often after I speak, people share powerful and heartbreaking stories of how suicide has impacted them either personally, professionally, or both. Along with sharing their stories, they ask many great questions. What I hear far too often delivered with a sense of despair is, “Chief, they were such a great person; we just didn’t see that coming. How did we miss it? What can we do about it going forward?”

The pain of feeling you missed signals that could have saved the life of somebody you valued in whatever capacity: family, friend, or co-worker, is devastating. The simple answer about an incredibly complicated disease is that many times the signs are subtle.

Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, maybe there were signs such as personality and behavioural inconsistencies that were out of the ordinary for that person.

Communication is so critical. You won’t know to what extent the challenge is in their life unless you ask:

  • “Is there anything I can do for you?”
  • Or, in the case of concern about suicide, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

What do we do if the person shares that they need help or are suicidal? In my experience, many leaders have not “pre-planned” the response to a human event the same way they have for an emergency response.

Good leaders try to think of as many possibilities as they can when they do a risk hazard analysis of their organization and community. I’ve always wondered why we don’t conduct a risk hazard analysis concerning our staff and their families. Why don’t we do human pre-planning?

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