Developing a Workplace Suicide Prevention Program: "... for Most Workplaces, the Issue of Suicide and Suicidal Behavior Is Not Yet on the Radar."

By Spencer-Thomas, Sally | The Journal of Employee Assistance, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Developing a Workplace Suicide Prevention Program: "... for Most Workplaces, the Issue of Suicide and Suicidal Behavior Is Not Yet on the Radar."


Spencer-Thomas, Sally, The Journal of Employee Assistance


The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many of the 30,000 people who kill themselves each year in the United States. A co-worker's suicide has a deep, disturbing impact on workmates. For managers, such tragedies pose challenges that no one covered in management school (Shellenbarger, 2001).

While managers often feel responsible for the well-being of the people they supervise, very few have been given any substantial training in how to identify people in a suicide crisis and link those who are struggling to lifesaving care. EAPs can play a critical role in closing this gap, not just by addressing the crisis, but also by helping workplaces develop a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, intervention, and "postvention."

About every 15 minutes someone dies by suicide, and roughly every minute someone attempts suicide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2010). Nearly every one of these individuals is currently (or was recently in) the workforce --or is loved by someone who is employed--and yet for most workplaces, the issue of suicide and suicidal behavior is not yet on the radar.

Suicide among working-age people is a growing problem. A five-year analysis of the nation's death rates released by the CDC found that the suicide rate among 45- to 54-year-olds increased 20% from 1999 to 2004, a larger increase than was found for any other age group during the same period (rates for youth and the elderly are decreasing) (Barber, n.d., Cohen, 2008). The working-age population carries the burden of suicide.

While suicide prevention may seem to be too intensive an endeavor for workplaces to take on, there are many prevention strategies that do not take much effort, but which yield tremendous results. The following are some low-cost, yet high-impact strategies EAPs can use to promote mental health and prevent suicide.

* Promote the suicide prevention lifeline. One of the best ways to increase capacity for suicide prevention in the workplace is to promote the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). This free resource is available to both employees in crisis (and those trying to support them) 24/7. The line connects individuals to local crisis call centers and is answered by certified volunteers, most of whom have had more training and experience in de-escalating suicidal behavior than many mental health professionals.

* Participate in National Screening Days. Screening is another effective strategy that EAPs can initiate. Whenever we can identify a health condition early on, we are in a much stronger position to prevent it from escalating. EAPs can help coordinate screening days as a part of a larger national awareness effort. Mental Health Screening (MHS) offers workplaces promotional and screening tools for National Depression Screening Day (October), National Eating Disorders Awareness Program (February), National Alcohol Screening Day (April), and National Anxiety Disorders Screening Day (May). In addition, MHS's Workplace Response program gives employees anonymous opportunities to self-screen for depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and other disorders. These screenings offer immediate results and referrals to an organization's EAP and/or community-based resources following completion of a screening questionnaire.

* Reward mental wellness. EAPs can help workplaces by providing an incentive to engage in mental wellness. For instance, the Working Minds program offers a contest every year to workplaces that have developed mentally healthy policies and practices that demonstrate positive outcomes like retention, lower absenteeism, and higher employee satisfaction. These workplaces then become a model for others. Like any behavioral change, we need to positively reinforce what is working if we want to see the behavior continue or expand.

* Use social marketing. By showing people who have recovered from significant psychological distress, EAPs can increase a sense of efficacy among the hopeless. …

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