While the recent suicides of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade shook social media and the world, their deaths represent the public face of a growing, disturbing national public-health crisis.
According to a report earlier this month from the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming nearly 45,000 lives in 2016, double the number of homicides. In more than 25 states across the country, the suicide rate has increased by more than 30 percent since 1999.
And while only 291 of those 45,000 deaths occurred in the workplace, for HR leaders, the most impactful statistic is that the largest number of suicides are happening among people between the ages of 45 and 65–prime work years. Most alarming, the CDC reports, is that 54 percent of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental-health condition.
Ellyson Stout, director of Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a part of the Education Development Center in Waltham, Mass., says that while suicide may not be epidemic in the workplace itself, HR leaders should have a plan in place to help employees and managers who are either at risk for suicide or who see co-workers who are struggling.
“Obviously it’s extremely traumatic for someone to die by suicide in the workplace, in terms of the potential impact on co-workers and witnesses,” Stout says. “But there also are many lost lives happening among those in the workforce, even if the death didn’t happen there. Employers can help here, too.”
In addition to making sure every employee knows about employee-assistance programs designed to connect them with the care they need, HR leaders can help managers and/or co-workers look for specific signs of personal struggle–such as someone who may be talking about wanting to die, asking about having access to pills or looking online for how to buy a gun. Suicidal ideation could also manifest itself with someone talking about having no reason to live.
“Other signs could be some kind of change or loss event, or talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain, especially mentioning being a burden to others,” Stout says, adding that, according to some of the major theories of suicidal behavior, other signals include an increased use of alcohol or drugs, anxiety or agitation, changes in sleep patterns, withdrawing from things that the person typically likes to do, or displaying rage or extreme mood swings.
“Remember, the signs don’t necessarily mean that the person is thinking about suicide, but these are some indicators of concern,” Stout says. “The big thing is, if you feel concerned about someone and their behavior has changed and you’re seeing some of these things to ask. Don’t hesitate.”
Asking simple questions such as, “Are you thinking about ending your life?” and listening without judgment to what the person is experiencing can make a difference, she says, adding studies show that asking those questions does not put the idea into a person’s head. In fact, it’s often a relief to be able to talk about what the person is going through, she adds.
“Certainly, co-workers, friends, community members or family members can ask the questions, and they can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [800-273-TALK],” Stout says. “They can have an initial conversation with someone who cares and is trained to have that conversation, and then get connected to local mental-health services.”
Stout points out that those options are available to everyone. But in a workplace, where there is an HR function, it’s important for the organization to plan ahead. The strategy should answer questions including: What happens if someone is in suicidal crisis? Who can that co-worker go to for help? Do we have HR staff trained on having an initial conversation with a suicidal person? Do we know which mental-health resources in the community are available?
To build a plan, employers also have web resources. For example, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention offers a comprehensive blueprint for suicide in the workplace and a guidebook on suicide prevention for managers. Stout’s organization, the SPRC, offers suicide-prevention guides for both managers and co-workers.
“If an employee dies by suicide or if one of their loved ones or family members takes their own lives, it can affect a lot of people. If it happens, HR needs to know how it will communicate to employees,” Stout says, adding that, in prevention mode, the key is making it as easy as possible for employees to come forward if they’re struggling with mental-health issues or thoughts of suicide.
“What we’re talking about here is setting up a comprehensive workplace suicide-prevention program, where you’re also thinking ahead about what to do in a crisis,” she says.