FailSafe for Life has a straightforward tagline – ending suicide through connections, education and hope – forged after the founder herself grappled with family loss.
Sabrina Votava started the Spokane nonprofit in 2016 to expand dialogue and training in suicide prevention. But reaching that foothold took years – along with a grief process – after 2003 when two of her brothers died by suicide six months apart.
Learning how to talk about suicide also took time. It’s now among the nonprofit’s focuses to help people start conversations with someone who is struggling. This month, FailSafe has scheduled awareness events, which kicked off with “The S Word” documentary Sept. 10 at the Magic Lantern. FailSafe also has scheduled advanced training Sept. 23-24.
Working in suicide prevention was part of the grief process for Votava, while she reached for understanding after her brothers’ deaths.
“I was trying to understand what happened with them. I did understand the depression, and how they could get to a point where they were having thoughts of suicide, but kind of how they broke through the barrier and moved forward and acted on it, I didn’t understand,” she said.
Raised in Spokane, Votava was a freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle when brother Zach died in February 2003. Kacey died the following August.
“It was a pretty brutal, almost unbearable year,” she said. “It took me at least five years to really start to function and feel like I could dive into this work. But I started pretty much right after that in the reading, taking classes and understanding what I could.”
When her brothers were struggling, Votava recalls having a deep fear of talking about suicide. She didn’t know how to ask either one if they were having suicidal thoughts.
“I knew particularly with my brother Zach that something wasn’t right, and he was struggling, but I never could articulate what was happening.
“I will never know if that would have made a difference, and that’s not something that I lay guilt on myself about. But I do think it’s important that we feel comfortable and confident enough to start the conversation about suicide and really with uncomfortable conversations in general.”
Even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable, it’s necessary because a person’s safety and life are at risk.
That’s partly why FailSafe sponsored the “The S Word,” to inspire hope, dialogue and to let people who have suicidal thoughts know they aren’t alone, Votava said. FailSafe provided financial support to screen it here in partnership with Prevent Suicide Spokane Coalition, but the documentary also is available to stream.
The film is a documentary of an attempted-suicide survivor interviewing other survivors who tell inspirational stories.
“They see how other people have gotten through that and hear these moving stories,” Votava said.
“Oftentimes, people who experience thoughts of suicide describe themselves to feel really alone and isolated. They feel disconnected from the community around them, but a lot of times, too, they also don’t know other people who have felt the way that they feel or are struggling.”
That often spirals into shame and further isolation, and then more disconnect can put people at higher risk for suicide, she said. It’s important also to disrupt that spiral, and sometimes it can help by offering messages and dialogue about people in a similar place.
“We see or hear messages from people who essentially say, ‘I’ve been in a similar place that you’re in, and here’s how I got through it, and I’m OK now, or I’m always working on healing, but I’m in a much better place, and all these wonderful things have happened; my life is totally different now,’ ” she said.
“It can help them potentially see a way forward. It can encourage them to engage in getting some help or maybe talking to someone they trust about how they’re feeling. It pulls some of the shame out of the experience, so they can be potentially more open.”
Votava said she’d encourage parents to watch “The S Word” before deciding if it’s appropriate to see with a teenager. Another film by MTV, “Each and Every Day,” is focused on teens with lived experiences, and it might be a better choice, she said. “That one is accessible through different streaming apps.”
Learning how to talk about suicide and ways to intervene also are topics of FailSafe’s various training sessions, which are mostly all free, she said. They vary in length from one hour to a 14-hour advanced session.
Two courses are evidence-based programs, with a goal to help people feel more confident in initiating the conversation, to know what to look for, what to say and where to get extra help. The more advanced training by FailSafe often has enrolled health care providers, mental health professionals and others who interact with at-risk populations, but it’s open to anybody, Votava said.
“There are no prerequisites,” she said. “The trainings are either free or at a significantly reduced cost. Our most advanced 14-hour training is $50.”
In 2019, Votava graduated with a master’s degree in social and behavioral health. She’s now a mental health counselor associate while completing hours required toward full licensure. Separate from the nonprofit, Votava works in a job to counsel students at Washington State University’s Spokane Health Sciences campus.
She facilitates some of FailSafe’s shorter sessions. Trainers in each are required to complete certification to instruct.
In its nonprofit work, FailSafe could use more volunteers, she said, and it welcomes questions from people in the community.
FailSafe’s mission is to prevent suicide by providing resources to support those at-risk and their loved ones, such as identifying the signs of someone who may be at risk and to get them the help they need.
“We want to offer opportunities for community members to stay connected but also for us to connect with other organizations and partner with them because we all have the same end goal.
“It’s also grown into a passion of mine. I’ve come to the place where I enjoy and love the work that I do. I find it to be really hopeful. I’ve met people doing incredible things and some really resilient people.”
For more information, go to failsafeforlife.org or email Votava at firstname.lastname@example.org. Another resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.