Dealing with Suicide at Work

Suicide has become global news as fashion icon Kate Spade, and Celebrity Chef and Television Personality Anthony Bourdain committed suicide.  Many couldn’t believe that such acclaimed and accomplished individuals like Spade and Bourdain could commit suicide because they have achieved so much and it seems like their lives were perfect.  However, as you try to understand suicide, you must separate success from suicide (the mental condition).  We’ve all heard the saying, “money doesn’t make you happy”, and as such, no matter what your financial status, rich or poor, equally, you may be susceptible to suicide as it is a mental health condition.

Suicide continues to be the leading cause of death in America:

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2016:

  • Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of nearly 45,000 people.
  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.
  • There were more than twice as many suicides (44,965) in the United States as there were homicides (19,362).”

Also, consider that these numbers are based on those who reported suicide attempts or thoughts.  Just consider how the numbers would change drastically for those who had suicidal thoughts and attempts but was never documented.

While suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States.  We continue to have a stigma surrounding suicide and refuse to have a discussion around it.  In our personal lives, with family and friends, we have a stigma associated with suicide as individuals who commit suicide are considered weak and selfish.  We prevent those who are struggling with the mental conditions from coming forward on the issue for fear of how they will be judged. 

In the workplace, we refuse to discuss the issue openly with our employees and provide them with wellness options to demonstrate that we support their health and will work with them to provide resources to help them get well.  Where we do have resources, such as an Employee Resources Hotline, or access to counselors, it is poorly communicated and shared with employees so many do not know where to go and how to access the resources, and poorly communicated to Managers so they struggle to provide support to employees who come forward to them. 

While we recognize that companies are not psychotherapists, organizations are made up of people who have real concerns and struggles that show up at your doorsteps.  You have to provide resources and prepare your Managers on how to have conversations with employees who are struggling and facing a crisis. 

I can recall a conversation with an employee who wanted to commit suicide.  The employee confided in his Manager who then came and notified me as the HR Site Leader.  The Manager was compassionate and empathized with the employee.  The Manager shared with the employee that he was a valued worker in this organization and that he cared about his wellness sincerely.  Both the Manager and I partnered with the employee to speak with a crisis counselor that day.  We got a counselor on the phone immediately.  The employee continued working with his counselor over the next several months and stabilized. 

Another example I can share is a friend that I loved dearly who suffered a mental relapse with depression and wanted to walk away from it all.  In fact, she walked away from everything, her job, her home, and tried to walk away from her marriage.  Her husband was determined to help her through it and save her and their marriage.  At the time, my friend did not know what was going on.  She couldn’t explain the emotional rollercoaster.  She just felt unfulfilled in life and in everything.  What was obvious was that prior to her having a baby she was as happy as can be and then after having her baby her world fell apart.  She suffered from post-partum depression.  Depression can lead to suicide.

Again, these are mental health conditions (suicide, depression, and anxiety) that can show up at your workplace.  You have an extremely valuable employee in your organization who one day decides they can no longer function, they can no longer work here, with no logical reason provided.  What do you do when you have this conversation with your employees?  How will you support them to help get them back on track?

Mental illness and suicide are real and happens to many people.  It doesn’t discriminate, all races, gender, age, and class are susceptible to this disease.  Hopefully, the tragedy of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain will help us to be more open to having conversations about suicide and help those with suicidal thoughts to get treatment early.

If you or anyone you know are having suicidal thoughts please contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.