May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in the United States, we are in the midst of an opioid crisis and a suicide epidemic, on top of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Every year, approximately 47,000 Americans die by suicide. It is a preventable public health problem and one of the leading causes of death across all age groups.
Every death by suicide leaves behind at least 130 people who report they knew the person who died and between 4–6 who loved him or her. This creates about 1 million people per year in the United States who are directly impacted by the suicide of someone close to them.
In addition, only 1 out of 25 suicide attempts is lethal, and oftentimes, the individual returns quietly to his or her life without getting treatment. These individuals are the walking wounded, and it’s highly likely that many of them are coming to work every day, struggling with a sense of shame, depression, grief, and loss.
The source of hope is that as employers, we can be part of the solution. By knowing the issues concerning suicide and mental health, we can do our part in the prevention of suicide. This is accomplished through staff education on risk factors, warning signs, and protective factors, as well as the creation of a culture where employees feel safe enough to reach out for support.
Here are four important truths all environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals should know and act upon.
1. Know the Risk Factors
Risk factors for suicide are often confused with warning signs, and it’s important to understand the difference. Risk factors indicate someone is more likely to consider, attempt, or die by suicide but indicate little or nothing about immediate risk.
These are often difficult to determine in the workplace, as our associations with coworkers tend to be more superficial. The most commonly recognized risk factors are prior suicide attempts; family history of suicide, trauma, mood disorders; and substance abuse—information you wouldn’t casually know about your office mates.
Other factors that may be more apparent in the workplace are relationships, job or financial loss, a lack of social supports, isolation, and impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies. Risk factors are not only applicable to individuals but also found in communities.
Exposure to others who have died by suicide, including in the media, can be a risk factor in your organization. Often referred to as contagion effect, vulnerable employees’ own suicidal thoughts and feelings may be triggered, increasing their risk for copycat behaviors and making it essential that employers understand the warning signs.
2. Know the Warning Signs
Warning signs indicate an immediate risk for suicide and are applicable to any of your employees. Talking about warning signs helps people know what actions they can take now to help a coworker at immediate risk for suicide. These behaviors are especially concerning if they are new; have increased; or are related to a painful event, loss, or change.
Warning signs are much easier to identify than risk factors in the workplace, and it’s important that EHS pros and their colleagues in human resources (HR) provide these employees with resources to seek help. Common warning signs are talking about wanting to die, speaking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, and talking about being a burden.
Evidence shows that providing support, talking about suicide, reducing access to guns and other means of self-harm, and following up with loved ones are effective tools. EHS and HR can quickly assist in providing these tools that can be quickly accessed in the workplace, creating protecting factors.
3. Know the Protective Factors
Protective factors are characteristics that make it less likely that your employees will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. The opposite of risk factors, multiple protective factors actually reduce the risk of suicidal behavior.
Common protective factors are a feeling of connectedness, problem-solving ability, spiritual beliefs, strong family relationships, strong peer support, hobbies, and access to treatment for mental health issues. Several of these factors can be created in the workplace and are inherent to an organization that has a trauma-informed culture of safety.
4. Trauma-Informed Culture of Safety
The majority of adults will be exposed to trauma in their lifetime, and they become at risk of suicide when they cope with their trauma in unhealthy ways. The greater the trauma, the greater the risk for substance abuse, depression, suicide attempts, and other negative outcomes.
The main components of a trauma-informed care treatment model include creating a safe environment, building relationships and connectedness, and supporting and teaching emotional regulation. It makes perfect sense that borrowing from this model to create a trauma-informed organization creates a culture of safety that’s able to provide support to employees during times of crisis, depression, grief, and loss. It’s OK to ask for help.
The sense of belonging and connectedness is a key protective factor, and it is created in a trauma-informed organization with communication, collaboration, and transparency. As previously mentioned, protective factors include peer and family support, hobbies, and problem-solving and are easily created in the workplace. Getting to know an employee’s family members, even casually, through work events can be extremely helpful during times of crisis. Forming a softball team or planning community service events as a team can also fuel connectedness.
In our organization at Sierra Tucson, the culture of safety consists of three circles: Employee, Patient, and Brand, with Trust in the middle. By creating an organization with trust as THE core value, we reinforce the interconnectedness of each circle or component of our culture. One cannot exist without the other, and none can be supported without trust. Other components you can adopt for your workplace culture include compassion, fairness, accountability, and emphasis on feeling safe.
It has been within the workplace culture of safety that risk factors have been understood, warning signs have been acted upon, and protective factors have been employed and nurtured. Employees’ lives have been saved. I challenge you to make your workplace a safe place to belong. It might just save someone’s life in your organization.
Learn more from Jaime W. Vinck of Sierra Tucson in this episode of the HR Works podcast, an outlet of our sister publication, the HR Daily Advisor.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
|Jaime W. Vinck, MC, LPC, NCC, is Group CEO for behavioral health facilities Sierra Tucson, Sierra by the Sea, and Sunrise Ranch. She serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers and speaks on issues of suicide, addiction, and depression. For more information, visit https://www.sierratucson.com/.