How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

The subject of suicide has long been taboo in the workplace. Suicide prevention is not a topic on which professionals are taught or trained, not even inside HR. However, the recent suicide deaths of Robin Williams, a comedian, and Andreas Lubitz, a pilot for Germanwings, have sparked a public discussion about mental illness and suicide in the workplace.

A recent study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine noted statistics related to workplace deaths by suicide and concluded:

A person’s identity can be significantly shaped by their work, and psychological risk factors for suicide like stress and depression can be influenced by the workplace. Additionally, as the distinction between work and personal life becomes more hazy, workplace problems frequently affect employees’ personal lives as well as their workplace problems.

There is a cost to ignoring the issue.  The human toll is enormous.  More people die by suicide in the US each year than by auto accident and for each death there are an estimated 6 survivors – made up of family, friends and co-workers.  A 2010 analysis estimated the cost of depression (often a factor in suicide) at $210 billion; almost 50% attributable to direct costs, 5% attributable to suicide-related costs and the remainder assigned to workplace costs.

How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

While the causes of suicide are complex, Human Resources professionals can play a role in its prevention. They can play an important role in the help of someone who is suicidal.

Step 1: Select the Right Health Partners

According to Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, which is part of the American Psychiatric Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, “HR professionals are in a position to really make a difference.   I would point to two things. The first is in their role as a purchaser of health care. You need to really ask questions of your health vendor partners. Ask about mental health, because that issue often is not raised.”

Step 2: Promote Mental Health Awareness

“Second, take action to promote awareness of services to employees. Don’t wait for the perfect mental health awareness plan, because it will never happen.”

Undoubtedly one of the most crucial things an employer can do is to provide a response to the stigma associated with mental health. Employers provide the message that discussing mental health is acceptable by advertising mental health perks alongside those for physical health. Employee comfort may always be guaranteed while maintaining confidentiality. But it’s crucial for workers to be aware that there is a secure location where they may get support and treatment. A really strong Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that is widely advertised can be a crucial part of the overall health care program.

Employers are starting to pay attention.   Support is being provided even in non-traditional professions such as comedians.  At the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, CA, the club owner provides an in-house psychologist to meet with the club’s comedians on a confidential one-on-one basis.

And since the crash of the Germanwings plane in France, airline companies are taking a hard look at their practices for identifying and treating pilots suffering from depression and other mental health conditions.

Sue Shellenbarger, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, once wrote,

“The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many ….. who kill themselves each year in the US”

HR can play a leadership role in the reduction of this public health tragedy. This is an important part of suicide prevention and how to help as well as prevent someone who is suicidal.

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Noma Bruton

Bio: Noma Bruton is an HR expert in the banking industry and currently serves as Chief Human Resources Officer of Pacific Mercantile Bank in Costa Mesa, CA. She is passionate about improving mental health in the workplace and the prevention of suicide. Noma is the author of the Sagacity | HR blog. Connect with Noma.


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