How to Talk About Suicide and its After-effects at Work

suicide preventionAlso published in Huffington Post.  Waiting for my job interview, I noticed a photo of a happy couple on the receptionist’s desk. Clearly it was a picture of her with an attractive young man. I smiled and asked her if that was her sweetheart. She gently touched the photo and said “No it’s my brother”.This seemed odd to me so I asked her why she had it at work. She said that he had recently died.

Of course I immediately gave her my condolences and expressed how sad and horrible to lose one so young.

I asked her how he had died. (No, I don’t think it is intrusive. Someone who is putting the picture there is obviously in need of being close to him and remembering him. )

She hesitated and then said “There was a note involved”.

I quietly asked, “You mean he took his own life”?

She looked down and nodded her head.

Again I told her how sorry I was for her loss. How horrible for her and her family. Then I asked her how she was doing and she began to cry.

She apologized for crying while grabbing a tissue. I told her that tears are normal and expected when we have lost someone close and so young. Repeating how horrible this must all be.

She told me, through sobs, that she has been back at work for two weeks now and no one speaks to her about this. Not one person has asked her how she is doing. After a couple of minutes, she stopped crying and kept thanking me for talking with her and not running away like everyone else had.

This was at least 20 years ago at a life insurance company reception and I remember the incident like it was yesterday. Her isolation was palpable.

I was grateful that the interviewer was running late, as was the receptionist I’m sure. I would have felt badly if we could not have finished our conversation. (Grief is important work and must not be ignored.) She had worked there for over 10 years. Everyone had avoided her since she came back.

September is Suicide Prevention Month

In the workplace, the stigma of death is a difficult one to tackle. When the death is because of a suicide, it is even more difficult to navigate without a little guidance.

We spend a lot of time supporting people who have cancer and illnesses; non-emotional or non-psychiatric illnesses.

Having worked in suicide prevention, I know that making suicide and suicide ideations taboo plays a part in suicide statistics. Just like Mental Illness has been coming out of the closet in the last few years, suicides can be prevented when it is de-stigmatized and talked about.

We have anti-bullying legislation talk about workplace harassment. But suicide or suicide ideation and mental illness are too often off the table.

What to Ask

If I wonder if something serious is going on, I calmly ask this: “Are you thinking of hurting yourself in any way?” And then I listen and try to understand and empathize with their pain.

 Feeling understood and validated is the best antidote to someone thinking of taking that action of desperation. Even if they say “No, I’m fine” to your question, just knowing that you cared enough to ask makes a huge difference.

According to the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention, 4000 people die annually by suicide in Canada. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states that over 42,000 Americans die by suicide per year.

People who are contemplating suicide do not want to die; they want the pain to stop. They are basically at the end of their known resources. They are usually feeling hopeless and helpless and they may also feel that nobody cares. They need compassion and leadership.

Becoming a Partner in Prevention

Tim Wall, the Executive Director for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention did a powerful and educational 8 minute video for their program “Hope at Work”.

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Check it out by clicking here.

In that video, Mr. Wall clearly identifies that reducing those suicide statistics means ensuring that people feel “heard, seen and understood by employers and coworkers, especially during times of despair”.

What to do?

Do you want to know what to do in the event they say “sometimes I want to end it all”? Do this:

Now you have to become a busybody and accompany them in finding a professional to talk to. You ARE NOT the professional. Don’t worry about upsetting them.

Help them call someone. Dial the phone. Sit with them. Look deeply concerned. Drive them to the place they need to be. Tell them “this is important!” Let them know that this is not something you can keep to yourself!

Lead them to the help. Involve a crisis center or call the hospital emergency.

If there is serious concern about them harming themselves and they are uncooperative, you may need to call the police. The crisis center will help you determine that. It is not about criminality; this is a case of using the police as the muscles to get someone out of danger ASAP.

If they go on sick leave from work because of this, get everyone to sign a get well card. Phone and (if it’s not weird) visit. Support their spouse too! And when they come back to work, decorate their cubicle/office with balloons. Celebrate their recovery.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes one concerned busybody to support someone considering suicide.

And, if you are a leader in your organization, a manager or just a really decent person, you just modeled to everyone how you want to be treated if you get sick and need support!

How can I help you?

I am no longer a crisis interventionist. Now, I specialize in overcoming communication breakdown and improving professional and personal relationships.

Is confident, respectful communication important to you?

Smart companies know that it’s good business to create safe workplaces and respectful collaborative environments. This month, we are reminded that it could even be a case of life or death.

To find out more about how I may be able to help your organization in improving every day difficult conversations, let’s talk. 514-661-3470 or [email protected]

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