In the MHRN Suicide Prevention Outreach Trial, our coaches patiently and persistently reach out to people at risk for suicide attempt. Coaching messages offer support and encouragement, with specific reminders to use our online program teaching skills for emotion regulation.
The coaches’ work can be discouraging. Many people do respond to outreach messages with gratitude and enthusiasm. A few angrily request to be left alone. But often, there is no response at all. Months of repeated outreach messages can yield nothing but silence.
After a year of outreach, coaches send a closing message explaining that the program will end soon. That closing message sometimes does prompt a response. After months of silence, a return message will sometimes describe how important and sustaining those many outreach messages were. As we share those stories in our coaches’ meetings, we often say “You never can tell how much those outreach messages might help!”
Those discussions reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool. I was the only person in our group old enough to remember the book, and I could only recall a few lines. So I ordered a copy. (Recommendation: If you order Dr. Seuss on Amazon, the suggestions to your account get happier!)
When I re-read McElligot’s Pool after many years, the parallels to our outreach work were even clearer than I remembered. The book opens with Young Marco fishing in a tiny pond. He receives some tough-sounding advice:
“Young man,” laughed the farmer, “You’re sort of a fool!
You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s Pool!
The pool is too small. And, you might as well know it.
When people have junk, here’s the place that they throw it.”
That advice perfectly captures the discouragement we can feel after repeated outreach with no response. Our work often focuses on people whose lives first appear small and filled with junk.
Marco is thoughtful, but not discouraged. He knows that he cannot always understand or predict what he cannot see:
“Hmm…” answered Marco. “Maybe you’re right.
I’ve been here three hours without one single bite.
There might be no fish. But again, well, there might!
Cause you never can tell what goes on down below.
This pool might be bigger than you or I know!”
Marco then imagines all of the marvelous things that might be moving beneath the surface. He allows that the small pool he can see might actually connect to the wide ocean. Fish might be heading his way from the tropics or even the North Pole. He imagines marvelous and exotic creatures never before seen or even described. And, since this is Dr. Seuss, they all rhyme.
McElligot’s Pool ends just as it should. Marco still hasn’t had one single bite. But he is smiling confidently and not at all discouraged.
Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish.
If a fellow is patient he might get his wish!
And that’s why I think that I’m not such a fool
When I sit here and fish in McElligot’s Pool!