How to Help (and Prevent) Someone Who Is Suicidal

Depressed businessman office worker
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Suicide has long been a taboo topic in the workplace.  Even within HR, suicide prevention is not a subject on which professionals are educated or trained.  But the recent deaths by suicide of comedian, Robin Williams, and Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz, have opened a public conversation 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:

Occupation can largely define a person’s identity and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace. Also, as the lines between home and work continue to blur, personal issues creep into the workplace, and work problems often find their way into employees’ personal lives.

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.”

Providing a counter to the stigma surrounding mental health is probably one of the most important things an employer can do.  By promoting mental health along with physical health benefits, employers send a message that it is ok to talk about mental health.  Confidentiality can always be assured if employees are uncomfortable.  But it is important for employees to know there is a safe place to go for help and treatment.  A really robust and well communicated Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be a critical component in 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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