10 signs of suicide and steps to take during the holidays
Another reminder that mental health issues, suicide and addiction are on the rise during the holidays, with the passing of Stephen “tWitch” Boss, better known as the former DJ who brought light and laughter to the “Ellen” show, due to a gunshot wound to the head. This tragic event follows the suicide of country singer, Naomi Judd, earlier this year also from a gunshot wound.
Every 40 seconds, someone in this country dies by suicide. “In recent years, the work environment has changed significantly,” says Jennifer Covarrubias, clinical director of Healthy Living Recovery. “I think 2020 helped us understand our mental health and how our workplace can directly affect our mental health hygiene.” According to statistics, job stress, such as long hours and job strain, are the leading causes of suicide among Americans. Suicide has become a global health crisis and the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, a rate that has increased 30% since 2020 and 53% among black Americans. Winter brings seasonal depression and a higher suicide rate. “The holidays can be a triggering season for many people who have dealt with loss (death, divorce, financial problems) or who don’t have a healthy support system,” Covarrubias told me.
know the signs
During the holidays, it’s important to know how to recognize the signs of suicide and the appropriate ways to intervene with colleagues, friends and loved ones when you don’t know where to start. We can never know what others are going through. Suicide can happen to the people we work with or to celebrities like tWitch, who was the epitome of joy, or Naomi Judd, who seemed happy and had it all out. Whether you are a celebrity or an ordinary person, there is often a different story inside. It is estimated that eight out of 10 people who consider suicide show signs of intent to harm themselves, so it is important to be aware of them.
- Isolation at work, poor work performance, lateness, absenteeism, mistakes, lack of productivity or taking more time off than usual
- Sudden change in an employee’s mood, professional appearance, or hygiene
- Talking about death to co-workers or in their social networks as a common topic
- Previous suicide attempts
- Indirect threats like “This job would be better without me” or “I might not be around to put my name in the hat for that promotion” or direct threats like “I’m going to end my life”. or “I should take a lot of pills”
- Expressions of hopelessness, depression, burnout, chronic absenteeism, and lack of interest in work
- Arguments with colleagues, customer complaints, and unusual behavior patterns
- Giving away significant personal possessions
- Illegal behaviors (bullying, harassment, low-level crimes outside of work),
- Financial stress (sudden adverse changes in your financial condition) or potentially public social media posts
What can employers do
When companies discourage discussion of mental health in the workplace, it can be a barrier if employees feel fatigued, burned out, or depressed. “It is important that employers implement self-care activities in the workplace,” Covarrubias told me. By way of example, he described the “Zen room” at the San Diego Mental Health Center, where employees can take short breaks throughout the day, adding that this improves morale, productivity and promotes relaxation.
If you’re an employer, it’s important to make sure human resources staff are well informed about suicide and suicidal ideation. If you are an employee of an organization where suicide has not been acknowledged or discussed, speak to someone in authority who can take steps to provide training to all employees. With the right training, you know how to identify and intervene to make sure a vulnerable employee gets professional help before becoming suicidal. Otherwise, social isolation can prevent suicidal employees from getting help when they need it most. The training teaches you that any form of stigma—judgment, name calling, or shame—should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, you could push a suicidal employee over the edge.
No suicide threat or attempt should be dismissed or taken lightly. Statistics show that employees who speak or threaten suicide or call crisis centers are 30 times more likely than average to commit suicide. And 40% of people who commit suicide outright had done so in a previous attempt. Threats or attempts are cries for help that something is seriously wrong with an employee’s life, and you should take them seriously and deal with them immediately. It is important to be supportive, compassionate and understanding in cases where a co-worker is suicidal.
If you’re worried that a co-worker is suicidal, trust your gut. “When someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, giving her a safe place to talk about her challenges is very helpful,” explains Covarrubias. “It’s human nature to want help and offer a solution, but normalizing the experience by listening to the employee can really go a long way.” Communicate with the person, share your concerns, and be willing to listen. Find out if the person has a specific plan to do harm. If so, don’t leave the person alone or keep it a secret. Covarrubias recommends something like: “I heard you say, ‘my life is not worth living.’ I am concerned about your well-being. I would like to discuss this with you.” Being direct often takes the anxiety out of naming the experience, he notes.
After learning that a staff member is suicidal, it’s important to explore what their support system is like outside of work, according to Covarrubias. “It’s also helpful to work with the employee to explore a support plan within the workplace. It’s important to maintain employee confidentiality, have the employee speak to someone in management who he feels comfortable with, and show genuine concern and support,” she says. “If your company offers an employee assistance program, a referral from management can guide the employee to the professional help they need.
When an employee commits suicide, it affects everyone in that person’s life: family, friends, and co-workers. Managers often bring in professional mental health providers to help workers cope with the shock and loss. It is incumbent on management to provide employees the opportunity to process the trauma together as a group, ask questions, and receive advice on how to take care of themselves emotionally during this unsettling time.
If someone you know is thinking about committing suicide, never try to counsel them unless you are trained. Tell someone in authority right away and insist that the employee get professional help even if she resists. If you or a colleague are considering suicide, call 9-8-8 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-273-8255. Trained crisis workers will listen and direct you to the resources you need.