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Warning: The following blog discusses suicide and self-harm.
Someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Knowing the signs of suicide in the workplace is not only a matter of individual well-being but also a responsibility organizations have to create safe, supportive environments where mental health needs are normalized.
Lyra Health’s 2023 State of Workforce Mental Health report found that 28 percent of workers surveyed experienced a decline in their mental well-being during the past year. We understand how scary this can be for HR professionals who want to support employees but don’t always have the tools to do so effectively. Addressing mental health in the workplace is crucial to providing the necessary support and resources to help prevent suicide and foster a supportive culture where employees can seek help and proactively address their mental health needs, because treatment can be truly life-saving. Knowing the warning signs of suicide and what to do if a colleague is at risk are central to this effort.
There’s no universal suicide risk sign—everyone expresses their emotions in unique ways. “Signs are not causal, but people at risk for suicide are usually struggling with their mental health or they’re struggling in life in a big way, and this can sometimes cause acute shifts in behaviors,” said Amanda Vaught, a psychologist and clinical quality supervisor at Lyra Health. “Distress outside of work could show up in the office looking like isolating, poor concentration, disconnection, excessive tardiness or absences, and other noticeable behavioral changes.”
Warning signs of suicidality (the risk of suicide) include:
Regular and overwhelming sadness that lasts for an extended period can signal an underlying mental health issue, such as depression
Frequent and extreme shifts in mood, such as going from appearing happy to suddenly displaying signs of deep sadness or irritability
A noticeable drop or shift in productivity, missed deadlines, increased errors, and lack of focus may indicate emotional distress
Consistently expressing feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or not seeing any way out of problems
Making direct or indirect references to self-harm or suicide, even in a seemingly casual or joking manner (“I just can’t take it anymore,” or “I wish I could disappear.”)
A sudden decline in personal grooming and hygiene could signal underlying emotional struggles
Isolating from colleagues, or becoming emotionally distant and disengaged from work-related activities
Sudden and significant changes in behavior, personality, or interests that seem out of character, such as a team member withdrawing from social activities when they’re usually highly engaged
Research consistently shows that suicide is not caused by a single incident. Rather, a combination of circumstances increases someone’s risk for suicide, including mental illness, serious physical illness, or other life events, such as prolonged bereavement, social isolation, or legal or financial difficulties. Conversely, circumstances that can help prevent suicide include learning coping strategies for stress, having supportive family or community relationships, and having access to mental health care.
“Big suicide risks include divorce or loss of a loved one, especially a child or a spouse,” said Vaught. “These life stressors can tip someone over the edge into more distress, and sometimes suicide risk will show up.”
Employment is a protective factor in both suicidality and mental health because it can offer a sense or purpose, self-reliance, self-confidence, community, and income, which is important since money stress is a suicide risk factor. “Pending layoffs can create an environment for some people that could potentially swing the pendulum to a place of anxiety or depression based on tenuous job stability,” said Vaught. That’s why it’s crucial to handle workforce reductions with mental health in mind.
Feeling supported and part of a community can help reduce suicide risk factors. In this way, a supportive work culture can play a role in suicide prevention. “One of the biggest protective factors for suicide is perceived support,” said Vaught. “Even if someone has many people in their social network, if they don’t believe they have support, they can be at increased risk of suicide.”
While it can feel awkward or uncomfortable to approach someone who may be struggling, checking in with employees can provide opportunities for them to seek the care they need. Here are some ways to approach a conversation about mental health:
Open-ended questions encourage the person to express their feelings and thoughts freely.
Example: “How have you been feeling lately?” (Allows the person to freely express their emotions.) “What are some of the things that have been causing you distress or concern?” (This helps identify specific triggers or stressors.)
“Many people want to feel seen, especially when they’re struggling with something very painful. It’s important, especially in a work context, to think about how you can help someone feel seen in a way that maintains their integrity and their sense of self,” said Vaught.
Example: “I can understand why this feels difficult. I care about you and want to make sure you get the support you need.”
“Sometimes sharing your own struggles can be helpful because it humanizes the conversation,” said Vaught.
Example: “Just checking in with you because you don’t seem like your usual self. I know last year when I was going through my divorce, I appreciated colleagues checking in every so often in case I wanted to talk.”
“It’s important to check in on people, but in a work context we should do it in a way that’s not too intrusive to someone’s personal space,” said Vaught. “If you’re concerned about someone, I recommend observing and describing what you’re concerned about, and express it to that person.”
Example: “I notice you haven’t been responding to emails and you seem distracted in meetings.”
Depending on the work culture, your relationship with the person, and after making sure it’s OK with your HR department, you could encourage them to look into mental health treatment in a thoughtful way. “In some contexts people may think recommending treatment is punitive or that it could have other alternative meanings,” said Vaught. “One of the things I love that organizations like Lyra do is helping companies make mental health struggles and getting treatment the norm on a systemic level.”
If you believe an employee is at imminent risk of harming themselves or others, call 911.
With the decline in mental health over the past few years, it’s become increasingly evident that offering a mental health benefit is not just a valuable perk but an essential component of a comprehensive benefits package. Providing employees with access to the support and resources they need, when they need them, can make a significant, positive impact on their well-being. Here are a few steps to consider.
“There’s still a stigma around mental health. For people to come to their boss and say something like, ‘I’m really struggling,’ there’s a fear of what that might mean for their job or career development,” said Vaught. An important message for employers to deliver is that it’s OK not to be OK. We all struggle at times with mental health, and some of us struggle more depending on life circumstances and our background.
Managers can be powerful in modeling their own mental health needs. “The person struggling might think, ‘If my higher-ups know what it’s like to have these experiences, maybe I can actually talk about this with them,’” said Vaught. “Sometimes when people with more power share their own struggles in an appropriate way it creates space to shift the dynamic in the culture and helps employees be more proactive about seeking treatment.”
Evaluate your mental health benefits and make sure they’re accessible and effective. Easy access to care is crucial in the current mental health system, where barriers like finding a provider within an insurance network, high costs, and long wait times are still prevalent. It’s also important to make sure insurance covers providers who deliver evidence-based care.
Mental health training in the workplace involves educational programs and workshops designed to increase awareness and understanding of mental health issues among employees and management. It aims to provide essential knowledge about recognizing suicide warning signs, promoting positive mental health, and fostering a supportive work environment.
“One way to shift the dynamic in the workplace culture and be more proactive is dedicating time to having speakers come in to talk about things like mental health, burnout, depression, trauma, relationship stress, and anxiety,” said Vaught. Education can empower people to reach out for help when they need it.
Treatment for people who’ve attempted suicide or are at risk involves a combination of therapeutic interventions and support. Treatment aims to address the underlying factors contributing to suicidal thoughts and provide the necessary tools for coping, recovery, and prevention of future attempts.
Treatment may involve:
Suicide risk assesment – The first step is to conduct a thorough evaluation to understand the person’s mental health history, current emotional state, and any factors contributing to suicidal thoughts. This helps guide an appropriate treatment plan.
Safety planning – A safety plan might include coping strategies, emergency contacts, and steps to take during times of crisis.
Psychotherapy – Counseling for suicide may include approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy to help people explore thought patterns and emotional triggers, and develop healthier coping skills to manage distress.
Medication – In some cases, psychiatric medication may be prescribed, particularly if an underlying mental health condition (such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder) is contributing to suicide risk factors.
Group therapy – Group counseling for suicide fosters a sense of belonging and reduces feelings of isolation. Connecting with people who have similar experiences can provide a supportive environment for sharing and learning from others.
Family therapy – Involving family members in the treatment process can help create a more positive and understanding environment at home. Family therapy aims to address relationship issues, improve communication, and strengthen the support system.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues or thoughts of suicide, reach out for help.
A supportive organizational culture and environment can play a powerful role in suicide prevention in the workplace because attention to mental health and treatment resources saves lives. Any suicide warning sign or indicator of self-harm should be taken seriously. And addressing signs of suicide can open the door to life-changing care.