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Debunking the Suicide Taboo: Empowering the Workplace to Communicate Openly

Suicide is one of the most misunderstood taboo topics in the United States. As a result, suicide is a topic that most people avoid talking about.

This is especially true in the workplace, despite the fact that it is a leading cause of death according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), increasing in almost every state from 1999 to 2016. However, in this day and age, organizations must be willing to have an open and direct dialogue about suicide. Companies must dispel suicide myths, provide education and support to at-risk employees.

With the popularity of organizational wellbeing programs, the workplace is a prime environment to facilitate discussions relating to suicide and suicide prevention.

  1. Provide Education and Awareness

    Ensure the right individuals at an organization are armed with education and awareness. They should be familiar with suicide statistics, common myths and how the workplace can be utilized in prevention efforts.

    The four most common suicide myths are:

    • If an individual is suicidal, he or she will always be suicidal. Suicide ideation is often transitory. Suicide ideation or suicidal thoughts can often stem from relationship issues, strong negative emotions, grieving the loss of a loved one or loss of a job, financial stressors, legal issues and/or illness. In addition, 80%-90% of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully using therapy and/or medication.
    • An individual that attempts or completes suicide is mentally ill. The CDC reports that 54% of individuals that died by suicide did not have a diagnosable mental disorder. Individuals that attempt suicide can feel ambivalent about it.
    • People who complete suicide are selfish and take the easy way out. Research has consistently demonstrated that people who terminate their lives do so out of a deep sense of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. From their perspective, their current circumstance is so dark and no end in sight. It is not an act of selfishness, but an act of complete despair.
    • Talking about suicide encourages at-risk individuals to attempt or complete suicide. This myth contributes to our long-held suicide taboo. By speaking out and demystifying the subject, it allows for a greater understanding and the recognition that suicide ideation is a real struggle for many people that live in silence. Talking about it encourages awareness, compassion and support.

    The CDC reports that 9.3 million adults have had suicidal thoughts, 2.7 million adults had a plan to attempt suicide, and 1.3 million adults have attempted suicide. In 2016, 45,000 adults completed suicide. These are staggering statistics! What is especially concerning is that suicide is on the rise. Since 1999, suicide has increased in almost every state. In half of U.S. states, the suicide rate has increased by over 30%.

  2. Incorporate Initiatives Into Corporate Wellbeing Program

    Suicide is more common than we think, and it is preventable. If the organization does not have a wellbeing program, make suicide prevention a topic of focus and provide opportunities to deepen employee’s knowledge and understanding. Sponsor a lunch and learn or offer a class with an expert presenting on the subject. September is National Suicide Prevention Month and a good opportunity to bring the conversation to the forefront.

  3. Know the Warning Signs of Suicide

    There are many warning sides, but some important suicide warning signs to know are excessive mood changes (excessively sad or depressed), isolating from others and activities, changes in appearance, change in personality and recent trauma. Additional warning signs to look for are life stressors, engaging in harmful behaviors, such as binge drinking or substance abuse, verbally expressing suicide ideation and giving away valued belongings.

  4. Know What to Ask and Act

    It’s important to ask the right questions that may help to uncover someone’s true feelings. Although you may not feel entirely comfortable asking a colleague or acquaintance these questions, it’s critical to put your discomfort aside to help this individual. The uncomfortable feeling today will pale in comparison to how you might feel if you failed to ask and something were to happen. Here are a couple of useful questions to ask are:

    • How are you coping with what's been happening in your life?
    • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
    • Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
    • Are you feeling so bad that you are thinking about suicide?
    • Have you given thought about how you would do it, or do you have a plan in place?
    • Do you have what you need to follow through with your plan?
    • Have you thought about when you would do it?

    These questions will help determine if the individual is in imminent danger. When an individual makes it known that he or she is contemplating suicide, listen attentively (gently and kindly). Allow the person to express their emotions and express your concern for the person. If the individual is suicidal and disclosed intent to self-harm, do not leave him/her alone for any reason. If on the phone, stay on the line until help arrives. It is okay to talk about suicide openly. Be attentive to the statements made. Do not make the person feel worse.

    If the person is in imminent danger, do not hesitate. Call 911 immediately. Advise the person that help is on the way and convey hope when you speak with them. Share with them that suicidal thoughts are treatable and that there is help available. Under no circumstance should the person be left alone.

    However, if you determine there is no imminent danger, have a listing of national and local resources available like Employee Assistance Program (EAP) information, suicide prevention hotlines and local listings of psychological services. Provide these resources to the person immediately and encourage them to utilize them. The key is to help them get them treatment right away.

Collectively, organizations, communities and individuals have the power to make a difference in the prevention of suicide and debunk the taboo around suicide. Suicide not only impacts the person struggling with suicide ideation, but it directly impacts loved ones, family, friends and colleagues. By educating your workforce, you can reduce the stigma, increase each employee’s ability to help someone who may be struggling and ultimately create an environment where employees are looking out for one another.

Want to learn more about mental health in the workplace? Check out this recent article: 7 Ways to Support Mental Health in the Workplace.

If you’re wondering how you can incorporate suicide prevention and awareness into your corporate wellbeing program, contact your OneDigital strategist today.