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A need for suicide awareness growing in the workplace

October 28, 2022

Suicide is a serious problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide rates have increased by 35% since 1999 to the point where there is now approximately one suicide death every 12 minutes1. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young adults in the 18-34 age range and is among the top causes of death for all working-age adults.

To help combat this trend, safety, labor, and mental health organizations are working together to provide vital information about how to develop effective and accessible crisis-response plans for people at risk. In the same way that raising awareness of the Heimlich maneuver and CPR has saved countless lives, improving basic knowledge of warning signs and response methods for those at risk can help prevent a suicide.

Risk factors and signs

Unfortunately, suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, and they are often signs of more serious issues. Much like other mental-health conditions, suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background.

Be alert to changes in a person’s pattern of behavior that may indicate a mental-health issue. Signs of at-risk behavior can include the following:

  • Increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Withdrawal from friends, family or community
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior
  • Collecting and saving pills
  • Giving away possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family

It is important to note that mental health is an overall wellness of how people think, regulate emotions, and behave.  Mental health can be affected by a mental illness or disorder (which is often diagnosed by medical professionals); however, a mental illness by itself may not indicate a danger of suicide2. There isn’t always an easy distinction between mental health and mental disorders, but changes in mental health should be noted as they could lead to suicidal tendencies.

The pandemic’s impact

The COVID-19 pandemic restricted social contact and had a negative effect on the nation’s collective mental health. In addition to increasing anxiety, the pandemic also worsened financial concerns for many families. Even as Covid transitions to an endemic rather than pandemic phase, mental health experts predict its psychological damages will be felt for years to come.3

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic was a rapid shift from traditional face-to-face care to various forms of virtual care. While telemedicine offers many advantages, such as expanding care to more patients like those located in underserved or rural areas, it presents challenges as well, especially for the mental-health sector since psychological assessments often rely heavily on the ability to observe patients at close proximity.

Despite potential technology challenges, telemedicine has been a beneficial tool for mental health providers and human services organizations. Its potential to reach customers where they may be more comfortable can help reduce the possibility of unhealthy behaviors including violent outbursts, self-harm, and/or suicide. It can also help identify needs sooner as the waiting time for an in-person session may be too long to disrupt a harmful chain of thoughts.

What organizations can do

Employee training is key to addressing suicide. Whether a formal course on Mental Health First Aid, or an in-house toolbox talk using OSHA resources, it is critical to offer instruction to management and employees on how to identify, understand and respond to the potential signs of suicide in order for them to support someone who might be experiencing a crisis.

Here are a few general guidelines about approaching a client or co-worker about suicidal behavior:

  • Talk openly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
  • Calmly ask simple and direct questions, like “Can I help you call someone for help?”
  • If there are multiple people involved, only one person should speak at a time
  • Express support and concern
  • Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice
  • Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong
  • If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace
  • Be patient

If someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, let them know they can talk to you about what they’re going through. While speaking, it’s important to try to adopt an open and compassionate mindset. Instead of “arguing” or trying to disprove any negative statement the person makes—such as saying things like “Look on the bright side, count your blessings,” etc.—employ what are known as active listening techniques.4

Active listening techniques involve listening carefully to the speaker, and then occasionally restating and clarifying what has just been said. While actively listening, avoid asking questions or saying what you feel, believe or want. Respond to the personal and specific aspects of what is being said, as opposed to bringing up impersonal or abstract concepts. Above all, try to focus on the feelings reflected in the speaker’s words, not just the facts or ideas. This can help the person feel heard and validated.5

In urgent situations, employees can call a new three-digit Suicide & Crisis Hotline—988—available to every person in every community nationwide. This number from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will put you in touch with trained crisis counselors who can help in a mental health, substance use or suicide crisis. The previous Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-8255) will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.

Organizations interested in bolstering their suicide prevention and awareness protocols might benefit from some of the following resources: