Among these issues there is no topic more emotionally charged, or more important, than suicide. Suicide prevention warrants our attention in the workplace because the feelings of despair, isolation and hopelessness associated with suicide do not wait quietly for after work hours.
Feelings of despair, isolation and hopelessness associated with suicide do not wait quietly for after work hours
- 42,773 Americans die by suicide every year.
- For every death by suicide there are 25 attempts.
- Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women.
- The highest suicide rate is among middle aged white men.
While there are already many excellent suicide outreach and prevention efforts made in schools and senior centers, middle aged white men are found predominantly in the workplace which makes it a particularly relevant setting to talk about suicide.
Clearly suicide is a complicated and sensitive topic to address but we should not let these difficulties get in the way of the opportunity we have to prevent suicides by educating workplaces about the warning signs and the ways we can help someone in despair and get them the assistance they need.
The reality is that most of us spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our friends. In addition, more of us live alone now than in previous generations. Their proximity and abundant face time means work colleagues are uniquely positioned to pick up on cues related to mental health difficulties and offer support.
The topic of suicide must not be kept in an isolated corner where only psychologists are allowed. Effective suicide prevention should involve as many people as possible in the community, people who have some sense of what they can do to help. And that community definitely includes the workplace where the opportunity to reach out, support, inquire, listen, speak up and intervene is very high.
In addition to my role as an EAP Consultant, I am a hotline volunteer for Samaritans, the premier non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention. I have been covering phone shifts at their Boston office off and on for over 3 years having benefited from the rigorous training program they offer. My conversations with Samaritans’ Steve Mongeau (Executive Director) and Ron White (Chief Program Officer) strongly endorsed the idea that if we want to reach many of those vulnerable to suicide we need to find a way to bring the conversation to places of employment.
The primary challenge in doing so is the reluctance most of us have when it comes to crossing that boundary into a coworker’s personal life and running the risk of embarrassing them or ourselves. We are wary of making someone angry at us for expressing concern. Ron White addressed these fears directly when he said: “Talking about suicide is not going to make someone suicidal. What it can do is save someone’s life.”
“Talking about suicide is not going to make someone suicidal. What it can do is save someone’s life.”
-Ron White, Chief Program Officer, Samaritans Inc.
There are many highly trained people, hotline volunteers and mental health professionals, who are experienced in assessing suicide risk and responding to despair and depression. If we find ourselves concerned about a coworker our goal should be to ensure that individual is connected with someone who has specific training in this area.
What exactly should cause concern about the risk of suicide of someone we know?
Here are the warning signs:
- Verbal indicators of despair (most people do give clues that they are feeling despondent). Examples: “I can’t go on”, “things are never going to get better” or “I can’t cope.”
- A change from baseline behavior- anxious, tearful, erratic mood, risky behavior.
- A change in baseline appearance- disinterest in hygiene, change in weight.
Next week I will post Part II which will address exactly what steps you should take if you are worried about a coworker in despair.