As I’m writing this, a dear friend is reflecting on the ten-year anniversary of her brother’s suicide. I know she struggles with the helpless feeling of, “Was there something I could have done?” It was with great interest that I watched the Foundation’s recent webcast, Reaching Employees With Suicide Prevention and Support Resources.
Flora Vivaldo, senior director of strategic initiatives at Aetna Behavioral Health, led an incredibly helpful discussion on this critical issue. Her opening thought: We won’t move the needle on suicide prevention without dialog. She framed her remarks with two concepts.
1. Suicide is a health issue. It has not always been viewed this way, and the cultural perceptions held today are based on thought that predates our scientific understanding of our perceptions. These stigmas interfere with people getting the support they need.
2. From a high-level, public health perspective, suicide can be prevented. It is not an inevitable health outcome. From a public health perspective, suicide can be preventable.
Trends and Risk Factors
Nearly 800,000 individuals die by suicide worldwide each year. In the U.S., it’s one of the top ten leading causes of death, taking more lives than natural disasters, homicides and war combined. It’s the second leading cause of death between the ages of ten and 34. And the trends are heading in the wrong direction. With a nearly year-long pandemic affecting millions, we are expecting the number of suicides to increase. Worldwide, 55% are reporting a decline in mental health due to the pandemic. For those who had preexisting conditions, the pandemic is only exasperating this.
The majority of us will experience a suicide loss over the course of a lifetime.
Suicide is complex and rarely rooted in a single aspect. Life issues, historical events, biological health (genetics, predispositions, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury), psychological health, and social and environmental issues all have influence. Depression, substance use disorders and bipolar disorders all have ties to suicide. Family history of suicide places someone at greater risk, playing both in genetic and environmental risk factors. Prolonged stress, including racial trauma, loss of a loved one and loss of a job can have influence. Rarely is a single emotional event, such as a breakup, the sole reason.
Championing Employee Mental Health
About 80% of suicide victims are of working age. The workspace can be an effective space for suicide prevention. Employers need to ask themselves, “How can I build a psychologically safe culture?” First, as employers, you can create messages stating that mental health is just as important as physical health.
Vivaldo outlined three elements that can be built into company culture.
1. Promotion of professional care
One in five people live with a diagnosable mental health condition, yet not all are getting the treatment they need. Stigma and fear of repercussions contribute to this. So, it’s important for employers to reinforce the mental health benefits that exist, such as an EAP or behavioral health plans. Take the extra step and make sure people know how to use these benefits and navigate them. You can also encourage them to get screenings at the same time as physicals.
[Related: COVID-19: Don’t Forget Your EAP]
2. Promotion of self-care
Just as there are risk factors that increase someone’s risk for suicide, there are also protective factors that lower risk. As employers, you have opportunities to maximize protective factors. Wellness programs have a great place here. They reinforce self-care: good sleep habits, exercise, nutrition, getting out in the sun, volunteering and mindfulness. Self-care is highly individualized, and it has key protective domains including community support, social support, and building problem solving and resiliency skills. Cultural, religious or faith-based beliefs also play a critical role in self-care.
3. Consideration of suicide prevention campaigns
Make sure suicide prevention is included in wellness programs. It’s important to normalize the conversation so that those struggling feel safe enough to ask for help. Managers should check in with direct reports often, especially in a remote working environment. Go beyond the simple “How are you” and ask, “How are you really?” As companies are going through tumultuous times, many projects have been sidetracked. Realize that when projects or open issues get sidelined and unaddressed, it leaves people feeling lost and uncertain about their future with the organization.
Company leaders can take a lead in normalizing the idea of mental health. Walk the talk. Leaders, especially in roles of power and influence, who are willing to share their experience have a tremendous impact. Their being vulnerable makes it possible for someone else who is struggling to share how they feel. It’s important not just to say you support mental health, but actively model it. It’s powerful when a manager can share that they can take a walk (allowing themselves a break) or have a therapy appointment. Avoid sending emails during off hours to prevent burning out team members.
It’s not just leaders who can make a difference. Make sure that all employees across the organization are involved in building strategies. Peer support is critical. Create pulse surveys or focus groups to learn of the needs of employees, and then respond to those. Many companies are creating mental health employee resource groups.
[Upcoming Webcast: NIOSH WellBQ—An Innovative New Tool to Measure Worker Well-Being | February 17, 2021]
Learn More About Suicide Prevention
Watch the on-demand webcast Reaching Employees With Suicide Prevention and Support Resources to learn the warning signs to keep on your radar—including behaviors, moods and verbal cues—as well as the steps to take if you know someone in emotional pain. The webcast was sponsored by Aetna.
Take a moment right now and program these numbers in your phone: 800-273-TALK or text TALK to 741-741. You can call or text if you are in crisis or if you are with someone in crisis.
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Stacy Van Alstyne
Communications Director at the International Foundation
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