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Customers who are thinking about suicide – what can we realistically expect of collections?
7 September 2017
Chris Fitch is the Money Advice Trust's Vulnerability Lead, and a Research Fellow at Bristol University’s Personal Finance Research Centre. Along with Andy Langford (a suicide trainer), and Gareth McNab (a suicide survivor), he will be delivering a session at the CSA’s UK Credit & Collections Conference in September 2017 on how collections staff can deal with customers who are thinking about suicide. Book your place here: http://ukccc.csa-uk.com/
People working in front-line debt collection have a lot to deal with when it comes to supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances. In the most extreme, but probably less uncommon than you would imagine, cases, they are faced with a customer who is thinking about suicide. Sometimes this is disclosed, sometimes it can be gleaned from the conversation, and sometimes it is unknown.
Suicide is still a relatively taboo subject but there is increasing awareness of how to spot the signs and prevent it, and more readily available help for people who may be having or at risk of having suicidal thoughts than there has ever been. However, the impact of thinking about suicide goes beyond the individual suffering and can also be very difficult for those dealing with them, especially if they feel a sense of responsibility to help.
One in four frontline debt collection staff report that they spoke to at least one customer they seriously believed might kill themselves in the last 12 months and the difficulties staff have in responding are evident with 25% of all frontline staff reporting being unsure what to do in such situations, 18% reporting their organisation does not have a clear policy on how to respond, and 37% believing they haven’t received sufficient training on dealing with suicidal customers.
In my latest research ‘Vulnerability: a guide for debt collection – 21 questions, 21 steps’ co-authored with Colin Trend and Jamie Evans and published in March 2017, we highlight how well collections staff support suicidal customers.
This is a hugely complex area but the guide includes some practical steps on what can be done to improve practice, while also supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the staff dealing with the issues.
Having a suicide policy in place
As the guidelines highlight, where a well communicated suicide policy exists, staff are more easily able to keep the customer safe, whether that is by referring to specialist help or careful listening to understand more. The link between financial difficulty and mental health issues has been well documented in recent years and debt collection agencies/teams must recognise that customers could be at risk and have a proactive policy in place.
This will mean that staff dealing with customers who may be thinking about suicide don’t feel awkward, unprepared or fearful about saying the ‘wrong thing’ or not effectively involving colleagues or external agencies in the right way, at the right time.
Developing an effective suicide policy for staff clearly involves more than knowing a helpline number. Organisations should consider:
- The role of frontline staff – what is expected?
- Disclosure – how can staff respond?
- Post-disclosure– what can specialist staff do?
- Staff support – what support is available to staff?
Referring to specialists
The guidelines also go into depth about how frontline staff should refer customers who disclose suicidal thoughts to those who can offer more specialist help such as a specially trained member of the team to an external organisation like Samaritans or CALM. This is important in emergency or extreme cases but frontline staff should not always just have a referral role when it comes to suicide disclosure.
Not every firm will have specialist staff or teams and not every customer will want a specialist or external organisation – disclosure often reflects trust in a specific person, and such trust isn’t as easily transferred as a call. Specialist teams and external support such as GPs might not be available at the time of the call.
For these reasons, considering whether frontline staff should have core skills in working with suicidal customers, rather than referral duties alone, could yield benefits for all.
Core skills for handling suicide disclosures
To manage suicide disclosures, staff may find it useful to follow the ‘BLAKE’ protocol:
- Breathe (to focus) – taking a moment to simply breathe and acknowledge what the customer has said
- Listen (to understand) – always taking what the customer has shared seriously, but also always listening carefully to properly assess the imminent risk of harm
- Ask (to discover) – listening is important, but where gaps continue to exist in your understanding about the current situation, questions should be asked to fill these.
- Keep safe (from harm) – the emergency services should be contacted if the customer is at imminent risk of harm. The customer should be reassured that the primary concern is their safety, and that any financial difficulty can be dealt with later
- End (with summary) – once customer safety has been addressed, if it is possible to do so, staff should summarise what has been discussed and agreed, so that the call can end (and any data-recording can begin)
Embedding a suicide prevention culture
Having a policy, referral system, and training in place aren’t the only things that organisations working in debt collection can do. The ’21 steps’ guidelines refer to qualitative research with collections staff in which they recount in detail instances of dealing with customers who do disclose suicidal thoughts. Each case is different and presents a completely different set of challenges but all require staff to have suicide prevention at the front of their minds.
For example, knowing that taking the time to explore and fully understand the issue with the customer and ensuring that they get the right help by the end of the call and then sufficiently following up the case, requires more than just a robust policy and good staff training. It requires the knowledge that a customer disclosure of suicidal thoughts or behaviour can mark a critical moment of opportunity to save a life and that it is the responsibility of the person dealing with them to take action, above any other aims or objectives commercial or regulatory.
Staff will naturally want to help customer who disclose suicidal thoughts, but they are not responsible for any actions customers might take during, or following, their conversation. However, post-disclosure support for customers in the days, weeks, and months following the conversation should be a priority. It is still important to resolve their financial difficulties, especially if the financial difficulty may have played a part in the disclosure of suicide.
Even if staff are concerned about the impact, contacting a customer following a disclosure or attempted suicide can be important. This can allow any financial difficulty to be addressed, and reassurances to be given about the coming period. Organisational policies should therefore assist staff to decide how and when such contact takes place, as well as providing the necessary resources and skills.
And of course, it is not just those at risk of suicide that require post-disclosure support. The staff to whom they disclosed it to will also need support. They will need a break from their work, reminding that they can talk about or seek help with what has happened, to be given the opportunity to reflect on the situation, and to be reassured that they have done their best.
Clearly, as with any vulnerable situation, there will be customers who do not disclose their suicidal thoughts, intentions, or behaviours. A key part of suicide prevention is not only managing disclosures but also encouraging disclosure. Organisations therefore need to consider whether they grant selected specialist/experienced staff the discretion to ask about suicide where strong indicators exist that a customer is at risk.
Where staff seriously believe that such a customer is at risk of suicide, then a sensitive (but direct) question is not only often welcomed by the customer, but can positively change their circumstances. This is about specialist staff asking about what they are already hearing or witnessing, rather than waiting for a disclosure that may never come.
In the session at UKCCC, we will be going into more depth about how organisations can be better geared up to handle suicide prevention and providing examples of the indicators and questions that organisations may wish to share with staff. You can also have a look at the Money Advice Trust’s training for staff on supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances at www.moneyadvicetrust.org/vulnerability