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Suicide Warning Signs in the Workplace

Reviewed by Patti van Eys, Ph.D.

After the pandemic, we, as a nation, began to talk about mental health openly, honestly and with compassion. We are getting better at destigmatizing mental illness, discussing that our brain, like any other organ, is susceptible to illness, and that an illness such as depression isn’t just “feeling sad” or a “passing phase,” rather, it is a disease that can profoundly change how people act and react, process information and express emotions, connect with others, and combat bodily illness. It disrupts our overall ability to lead purposeful and personally meaningful lives.

According to research conducted at Johns Hopkins, an estimated 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Increases in reported mental illness can be due to stressors—both real and perceived—that feel threatening and overwhelming. Sudden life changes, genetic predispositions and chemical imbalances that affect mood or behaviors are only some of the known contributing factors to mental illness. If left unchecked and unaddressed, they can increase the likelihood of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI), over half of adults with a mental illness do not receive individual treatment.

September is Suicide Prevention Month—a time to destigmatize conversations about suicide, suicidal ideation and suicide prevention and postvention. While mental health professionals focus on an individual’s overall quality of life, it is important that corporate leaders and upper management feel not only confident, but comfortable having these conversations in order to best care for their employees and safeguard their corporate culture.

Prevention measures are steps that can be taken before suicide becomes a part of the thought process in the course of depression or another mental health challenge. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 46% of all persons who died by suicide were already suffering from some other mental health condition. Educating employees and coworkers about mental health awareness not only supports their own self-care, but teaches everyone to be aware of other people’s emotional states. The best defense against this mental health crisis is educated awareness, identifying employees who may be at risk, and early intervention.

Learn to recognize some early warning signs of suicide:

  • Persistent sad or irritable mood
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Talking about death and suicide
  • Saying good-byes
  • Expressing feelings of being a burden for others
  • Giving away treasured possessions
  • Repeating the belief that things are never going to change
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Complaining about unimaginable physical or mental pain
  • Uncharacteristically impulsive, reckless and/or aggressive behavior
  • Increased drug or alcohol consumption
  • Purchasing a weapon
  • Creating a will prematurely

When someone is displaying any or all of these behaviors, it is important to ask them about how they are feeling—persistently, privately and attentively. During a Pathways At Work session focused on Suicide Prevention and Awareness, our mental health experts review steps to take when concerned about suicidality. Although it can feel awkward, it is important to initiate an honest conversation, provide a safe presence, and ask appropriate questions about the person’s observable sadness and possible thoughts about wanting to die or any suicidal intentions. The most important thing anyone can do is to be fully present, offer hope, and assist them in getting the help they need. It is through asking the tough suicide question that lives are saved.

What Can Employers Do?

Prevention in the workplace is, by definition, proactive; taking both internal and external measures to provide a supportive environment that encourages connection, belongingness and meaningful work. These efforts can be reinforced by mental health and suicide prevention programs designed for the workforce community.

How can we accomplish steps toward a more resilient and hopeful workforce?

  • Promote emotionally intelligent leadership that supports a balance of psychological safety and solid accountability
  • Offer programs and activities designed to develop a sense of purpose, group identity, and connectedness within the company culture
  • Provide mental health education and awareness that supports stress management
  • Encourage mentorships
  • Acknowledge and reward collaborative problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Create a sense of belonging and interdependence
  • Foster a sense of control and predictability
  • Create goals and objectives for the company, department, group and individual that promote a hopeful outlook for the future
  • Offer easy access to medical and mental health treatment and professional support

Unfortunately, sometimes people are unable to navigate the complexities and pain of depression, leaving behind friends, family members and coworkers with complicated bereavement. This can include feelings of anger, guilt, confusion, increased anxiety and depression.

Managers should therefore also be prepared to take postvention measures. Postvention measures are steps that can be taken for those affected by the loss of a coworker due to death by suicide, providing a safe space for processing and healing.

How can employers support postvention?

Some postvention steps include:

  • Design communication strategies to inform employees of a death by suicide that minimizes additional trauma
  • Ensure availability of mental health providers, support services, and/or on-site counselors (e.g., chaplains)
  • Provide postvention debriefing sessions with mental health providers open to employees
  • Provide direct support to affected employees through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Take note of dates such as birthdays, anniversaries or holidays that might be difficult for surviving friends, family members and coworkers
  • Designate a point person to communicate with the family and coordinate efforts to provide meals, rides, help with errands, packing, etc.

If we consider suicide prevention alongside other lifesaving corporate trainings such as CPR, fire safety or evacuation drills, it becomes obvious that the benefits to both the company and the individual outweigh the cost.

Download our Suicide Awareness & Prevention Handout for your workplace.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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