This week is suicide prevention week. The problem is much more serious than many realize.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2017:
- Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people.
- Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.
- There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States as there were homicides (19,510).
But not everyone who attempts suicide completes it. How many attempts? According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there were 1,400,000 suicide attempts in 2017. https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/. Yes, 1.4 Million!
When you filter in those who have considered suicide, the numbers are even more staggering. Based on data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 4.3 percent of adults age 18 and older in the United States had thoughts about suicide in 2017.
In response, one may ask: do employers have a duty to prevent, or at least try to prevent, suicide? In most circumstances, the answer is probably “no,” But that does not mean employers should not focus on the issue.
The law sets a minimum. Responsible employers who genuinely care about their employees go further.
What can you do as an employer?
- Educate yourself and other leaders on suicide, including possible warning signs. Severe depression, often coupled with substance abuse, is one of the primary causes of suicide. Do not expect employees to just “deal with it.” Substitute “cancer” for “depression” and you will see how cold and/or ignorant someone may sound if they suggest mental illness is weakness. We need to understand the issue if we are going to help employees where we reasonably can.
- Offer your employees access to professional help by way of an employee assistance program (an “EAP”). As we all know, an EAP is a very inexpensive way to offer employees anonymous support for myriad issues from substance abuse to marital problems to suicidal ideation. If you don’t have an EAP, make the business case to get one.
- Revisit your wellness program. Is there enough focus on mental health? Do not assume the answer is yes. We need to add light to the issue so that people do not hide for fear of societal judgment and the life-threatening risks that go with it.
- Share with all employees information about the national suicide prevention hotline. I will do that just now: 1-800-273-Talk (8255). Why would you not?
- Consider a program for employees on the warning signs of suicidal ideation and possible sources of help. You are more likely to get employees to attend/participate if part of your focus in announcing the program is how employees may be able to help their family members and friends. Attendance is not an act of self-disclosure but concern for others
- Emphasize when you discuss your health benefits both physical and mental health. It does not hurt to message explicitly that there is no stigma in getting mental health support—no more than getting dialysis.
- Consult with a mental health professional with expertise in the area if an employee is talking about suicide, directly or indirectly, or if you have an objective reason to be concerned about an employee (e.g., talking about helplessness). Obtain guidance on how to speak with the employee. Yes, requiring an employee to be evaluated by a mental health professional may create the risk of an ADA perceived disability claim. But think of the human risk if you avoid an intervention that could have made a difference.
- Include in your training programs to avoid harassing behavior, the unacceptability of messages that disparage, demean or make fun of mental illness. Training should make less likely that hurtful comments, including “jokes,” will occur.
- As importantly, respond to disparaging, demeaning or hurtful comments about mental illness that may occur notwithstanding the training, even if there is no complaint or objection. It is much more than avoiding legal liability for harassment; such comments may increase the unwarranted shame and potentially increase the risk of suicide.
- Focus on respect in your leadership training. Being abusive may not be illegal but it is bad behavior that may take its victim to an even darker place. Bullies are weak but they inflict penetrating pain.
- Get help yourself if you have had thoughts about (or have attempted) suicide. It is not weakness. I cannot think of any greater act of strength.