TSA Question-Persuade-Refer gatekeeper conversations save lives

Monday, September 25, 2023
The pin designed and worn by TSA Team Nevada Gatekeeper team. “It’s simple, subtle but can be seen, which is what we expect of a Gatekeeper,” said Scott Hegyes, who leads Nevada’s OPR efforts.

TSA Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR) Gatekeepers Jose Delgado, Curtis Hensley and Scott Hegyes have stories to share in recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. 

At least three other people are alive to corroborate the details of those events because each man had a willingness and a resolve to hear and be present to someone showing potential signs of suicide. Their actions, influenced by their training as QPR gatekeepers, provided a grateful and humbling ripple effect in their lives, the lives of those they saved and their families. 

None of them are psychologists or psychiatrists nor did they try to fix a problem. They observed someone in crisis, listened and referred the distressed person to others who could help. 

TSA Academy Inquiry Officer Jose Delgado (TSA file photo)
TSA Academy Inquiry Officer Jose Delgado (TSA file photo)

 “This person is in serious distress, and she’s about to be alone in a hotel for the weekend. I can’t let that happen.”
That was what Jose Delgado was thinking when he was contacted in Georgia late one Friday evening about a TSA student in Texas whose classmates reported to leadership she might be suicidal. 

As an inquiry officer and Gatekeeper at Academy East located on the campus of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, Delgado investigates noncriminal misconduct cases of staff and students assigned to the academy. 

Two academy instructors were mobile team training and had dismissed class for the weekend when the situation came to light. Delgado, Akiile Barthelemy and Charles Gaetan III tag teamed to locate the student and listen to her.

“I came right to it,” said Delgado as he spoke to her on the phone. “Are you thinking of hurting yourself? And she said ‘Yes, I’m not worth it.’ The thing that really made me anxious was she also admitted to having hurt herself before, so I knew she was capable of harming herself again.”

While Gaetan was driving to her assigned hotel, Delgado engaged the woman in conversation and encouraged her to get out of the dark room.

“I said, ‘Do me a favor. I’m going to go sit out on my porch in Georgia. Let’s get outside and get some fresh air. Will you mirror me?”

She agreed and took a hotel desk chair outside. Soon after, Gaetan arrived and took over talking to the student while Delgado conferenced in a FLETC Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team member. 

“I really appreciate you talking to me,” said Delgado, introducing the CISM member to the woman. “You mean a lot. Would you mind talking to Dave? I think he’d like to hear what’s going on and what’s bothering you. I’m positive that he can give you an alternate way to think.”

Once back at her airport, the student was able to address her issues with her own team.

“I’ve got a gun in my truck, and I came here to kill myself.”

TSA Academy Instructor Curt Hensley (TSA file photo)
TSA Academy Instructor Curt Hensley (TSA file photo)

Academy Instructor and Gatekeeper Curt Hensley and his wife were taking a twilight stroll on a Georgia beach when they passed a man deep in thought and staring out into the horizon. They both sensed something wasn’t quite right about his demeanor, so on their way back they stopped to ask him if he was okay. 

It wasn’t long before the man opened up and said that he feared his estranged wife would keep him from his child, and he decided to take in one last sunset before ending it all.

“He had a phone sitting there and it was lit up with a whole bunch of messages,” said Hensley. “He wasn’t responding to anybody, and I pointed that out and said, ‘It looks like a lot of people care about you and are worried about you right now.’”

They contacted 911 and the man allowed them to contact his mother. The Hensleys are still in touch with the man’s mother to this day. The gentleman reunited with his wife and child and is doing well.

“It wasn’t that far into the conversation when tears started to fall.”

That was the way Academy West Instructor and Gatekeeper Scott Hegyes described a reaction from a student he observed having difficulties. Hegyes was available to that person, talked through the issues with them and left them with a mentor during their time at Academy West.

Most training travel at FLETC and Academy West in Las Vegas is routine, but for some students who’ve not been away from home before, their two to three-week training period can be a challenge. 

“The one thing I realized was it’s not just our (Nevada) employees we need to be mindful of,” said Hegyes. “We have so many people coming here and anybody at any time could be having something going on in the background, and they may not have somebody to see or talk to.” 

TSA Academy Instructor Curt Hensley (TSA file photo)
TSA Academy Instructor Curt Hensley (TSA file photo)

Question, Persuade, Refer

The question, persuade, refer conversation is not professional counseling. Simple by design, it is face-to-face interaction meant as a lifeline. People are trained to recognize the warning signs, clues, and suicidal communications of people in trouble, and gain skills to act quickly. QPR gatekeepers have an enhanced awareness and familiarity with QPR action steps for initiating an intervention and a response by mental health professionals. 

“Think of it like CPR,” said Danelle Ruffin, program manager for TSA’s suicide prevention program. “It’s a lifeline from a friend who takes the time to listen, and when needed, refers the person to other resources that can provide further help.”

As this month of suicide prevention awareness comes to a close, learning about these gatekeeper encounters can open new ways for us to think about caring for one another. If their events leave you wanting to talk candidly and confidentially to someone who can help, dial the national suicide hotline at 988.

By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs