We must work together to prevent suicide, and to support people after it – Mental Health At Work
08/09/2020

We must work together to prevent suicide, and to support people after it

Sophie Pullan
Sophie Pullan

Senior Comms and Marketing Officer, Mental Health at Work

Thursday 10th September 2020 is World Suicide Prevention Day. In this blog, Sophie Pullan, Senior Comms and Marketing Officer for Mental Health at work, shares her personal experience of her father’s death, and explores ways organisations can support their employees when it comes to this difficult topic.

Each year across the world, around 800,000 people take their own life​​Reducing the risk of suicide: a toolkit for employers PDF 6 0A toolkit to support senior leadership, line managers, HR and occupational health and safety professionals to develop strategies to reduce the risk of a suicide that impacts the workplace, identify staff who may have suicidal feelings, and deal with crises.Free By: Business in the Community View resource. That’s one every 40 seconds. And that figure is climbing.

Each life lost represents someone’s partner, child, parent, friend or colleague – the ripple effect is huge, and it’s estimated that for each suicide, around 135 people suffer. This equates to up to 108 million people per year who are profoundly impacted. It’s also true that those impacted are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt to take their own life.

The thing that pains me the most is that I know my dad's death was preventable

The truth is, bereavement by suicide isn’t straightforward. The pain and grief is both intense and complex, and for many, feelings of isolation and loneliness are front and centre. Unfortunately, I know this first hand – my lovely dad took his own life in June 2017. I was, quite literally, plunged into darkness for some time afterwards. The shock was immense. And it’s something that impacts me and that I have to manage every day. My dad never showed signs of suicidal behaviour; he was the life and soul of the party, a wonderful, caring and loyal friend, with the most infectious laugh. But he was suffering hugely underneath it all and he must have felt that he had no other option.

The thing that pains me the most is that I know my dad’s death was preventable.

A beautiful bouquet of flowers rests on a windowsill.

There is a huge stigma around suicide which prevents people from seeking help when they desperately need it, and stops others from offering support when they want to. Just asking the question “are you feeling suicidal?” can feel so tricky, but can literally save a life.

The reality is that the reasons for suicide are complex and can never be definitively established. But research suggests that suicide prevention efforts will be much more effective if they span multiple levels and incorporate multiple interventions. And so, there is a key role employers can play in prevention.

Suicidal thoughts are far more common than people realise

We spend about one-third of our lives at work. So the workplace community is a real pillar in mental health support, for all of us. And, did you know? Suicidal thoughts are far more common than people realise – one in five adults say they have thought about taking their own life at some point.

Prevention – how employers can help

I would say that, firstly, education is key. We need to get better at educating people so they can spot the signs of someone who’s at risk and support them to get the help they need. I believe that everyone should have some suicide awareness training – Zero Suicide Alliance offers a brilliant, free e-learning tool​Suicide prevention training from the Zero Suicide Alliance Web page 3 0This free online training shows how you can help people who might be contemplating suicide by bringing up the subject and offering support. The course is available to everyone and is accessible without any kind of registration or login.Free By: Zero Suicide Alliance View resource that focuses on breaking stigma and encouraging open conversations. This is a fantastic place to start.

A line manager and his report have a serious conversation.

Secondly, line managers should be equipped to have conversations around mental health. Colleagues and line managers can provide an important social and emotional support network, built on shared experiences – this is an important step to tackling stigma surrounding suicide.

Thirdly, as with many mental health initiatives, starting from the top down is an excellent way to tackle stigma and embed an open culture at work. We need more CEOs to show leadership on this issue, making sure that action plans are in place to address poor mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Business in the Community’s toolkit​​Reducing the risk of suicide: a toolkit for employers PDF 6 0A toolkit to support senior leadership, line managers, HR and occupational health and safety professionals to develop strategies to reduce the risk of a suicide that impacts the workplace, identify staff who may have suicidal feelings, and deal with crises.Free By: Business in the Community View resource is designed to help organisations adopt a strategy to reduce the risk of a suicide, but above all, it builds confidence in initiating the most difficult conversation at work: “Let’s talk about suicide.” The reality is that your leadership could save a life.

Suicide bereavement and postvention – how employers can support their staff

I mentioned earlier that for every suicide 135 people are directly impacted. So, it’s fairly likely that somebody where you work will experience this trauma. As an employer, how best can you support them? For starters, understanding how and why suicide bereavement is differerent is hugely helpful when you’re supporting people who have lost somebody to suicide.

The grieving process is often complicated and typically lasts longer than other types of bereavement

The grieving process​Dealing with death and grief: Dying Matters PDF COVID-19 is causing many people to die before their time. This can be very distressing for those who work with vulnerable people, who not only may feel bereaved themselves but may also have to support patients' friends and family. This guide can help.Free By: Hospice UK / Dying Matters View resource is often complicated and typically lasts longer than other types of bereavement – significant effects may still be felt for many years afterwards. We are all unique: no bereavement follows a neat pattern and bereavement by suicide can be chaotic.

Postvention​Crisis management in the event of a suicide: a postvention toolkit for employers PDF 4 0A toolkit to support employers in their response to an employee taking their own life, at work or outside the workplace. It covers a complete timeline: from immediate discovery and dissemination of the news to post-traumatic support and grief.Free By: Business in the Community View resource” relates to the actions that help people in the aftermath of a suicide. Effective postvention ensures that appropriate care and support is provided and can also reduce the risk of another suicide. It’s important that, when creating mental health and wellbeing strategies, organisations consider a suicide prevention and postvention plan.

As we know, stigma​Tools for raising awareness and tackling stigma Web page 2 0Line managers and supervisors are the frontline of wellbeing management. This resource shows managers in the railway industry where to find information to promote awareness of mental health in the workplace.FreeSign up for free to access By: RSSB View resource is massively linked with suicide. Someone who has been bereaved through suicide may find it difficult to return to work because of the stigma around it. So, what should employers do if one of their staff has been bereaved by suicide?

A woman checks in with a sad colleague.

Listening is key. Your colleague may want people at work to know what’s happened. Equally, they may not. It’s important to respect their wishes, to reach out and to listen. People bereaved by suicide often appreciate colleagues acknowledging what has happened, even very simply: ‘I was so sorry to hear about your daughter’, rather than having it ignored completely.

When I lost my dad, the support from my team was of great comfort to me. A work environment can provide a real sense of belonging for employees, if they:

  • value and respect its staff and their families,
  • prioritise emotional wellbeing,
  • promote open communication,
  • and, in turn, encourage people to seek help when they need it and support one another.
There is no ‘proper’ way to grieve

Recognise that it’s not a straight road to recovery. There is no ‘proper’ way to grieve. It’s really common for those of us who’ve been bereaved by suicide to feel lots of different things, from guilt and anger, to disbelief, fear and sadness, along with physical pain. I know for a very long time after I lost my dad I just felt utterly numb.

It’s extremely likely that work will be impacted. For a considerable amount of time, understandably, your employee’s focus might be off. On the other hand, they may work themselves to exhaustion in order to not think about what’s happened. It’s really important to allow them time off when they need it and to promote and support healthy grieving. It’s also important to provide structure so they still feel valued at work. You can find more info around this in the BITC toolkit​Crisis management in the event of a suicide: a postvention toolkit for employers PDF 4 0A toolkit to support employers in their response to an employee taking their own life, at work or outside the workplace. It covers a complete timeline: from immediate discovery and dissemination of the news to post-traumatic support and grief.Free By: Business in the Community View resource.

As a leader or line manager, you must remember that it’s possible your colleague or employee may need time off in a few months’ time, or around the anniversary of the death – even in a couple of years’ time. Patience and respect are key.

A woman takes some time off from work and has a peaceful day.

Ensure they know where to find help. Whether it’s through workplace support, like EAP services​Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – Supporting good work for UK employers? PDF 1 0This report, published by The Work Foundation in association with the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, explains how Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be used by employers to seek help on both work and non-work related issues. Free By: The Work Foundation View resource, or signposting elsewhere, please make sure your staff know where to find help. I, personally, attend a local support group with SoBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide). I’ve found connecting with people who understand my pain to be really beneficial to my grief. SoBS has support groups all over the UK.

Other services I’ve found particularly helpful include CALM CALM The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is leading a movement against suicide. View organisation, Support After Suicide, and Samaritans​Samaritans helpline Web page 3 0The Samaritans helpline is available 24 hours a day, providing a one-to-one listening service for anyone experiencing distress.Free By: Samaritans View resource.

If you have been bereaved by suicide, support is available from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.