International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day – supporting those bereaved, and helping to prevent suicide where you work
115 people die by suicide in the UK each week. Globally, around 703,000 lives are lost to suicide each year. That is simply far, far too many. And there’s a life behind every one of those deaths – a person, young or old, with hopes and dreams, with hobbies, talents, and ideas, with friends, family, and a community – where the loss will forever be felt.
For every suicide, the ripple effect is huge – research shows that 135 people are directly affected. That’s 135 people who will carry the weight of suicide bereavement with them, every day. And they themselves are at greater risk of mental health problems, suicide attempts, and suicide. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Suicide is preventable, and we all play a role in tthe fight of prevention.
Who is at risk?
People of any age or gender can be at risk of suicide. But we do know there are some groups more at risk – in 2021, 5219 suicides were registered in England, and 3,852 of these were men. The truth is, and the data has consistently told us, that men are 2.9 times more likely to die by suicide than women, with males aged 50-54 the group at the highest risk. This Saturday 19th November is International Men’s Day, a timely reminder to check in on the men in our lives that we love and cherish. Also, the date is a great chance to get men talking in your organisation, and to help let them know that help is available.
My dad took his own life in late spring of 2017, just a few weeks before his 50th birthday. In the last 5 short years, I’ve seen a real change in how we perceive and talk about mental health – progress is definitely being made. But, there’s still a long way to go in tackling the stigma around mental health and particularly suicide. The truth is – the more we talk about it (as uncomfortable as it might sometimes feel) the less likely someone close to us will reach crisis point. I wish I’d had the right words 5 years ago, that I was better at reading the signs that my dad wasn’t well.
SoBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide)
SoBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) is the only national charity here in the UK dedicated to supporting adults who’ve been bereaved by suicide. They’ve got support groups across the country, safe, confidential spaces to talk about your experience and receive support from other people who’re going through it. My local group has been a life-line for me over the last few years. I chatted to Hannah, our group co-ordinator, to get some advice for employers.
“A bereavement by suicide is different from any other kind of bereavement, with a range of emotions that may be unfamiliar, frightening and uncontrollable.” She said, “The initial sense of shock can be staggering and the grieving process is long and extremely complicated. People who have been bereaved by suicide often talk about feeling isolated and even abandoned following their bereavement, which is why it is so important to keep the channels of communication open for colleagues who are going through this often incredibly lonely experience. The right support from communities, including workplaces, can help people to grieve and recover, and can be a critical element in preventing further suicides from happening.”
It’s difficult to know how to support people who are grieving. But Hannah gave me some helpful guidance to help you do, and say, things that will be helpful.
- Check in with your colleague and ask what you can do. Be specific in offers of practical help.
- Help prepare for a meeting, tidy up that cupboard, make coffee, etc… Just do what obviously needs to be done. Routine tasks will be neglected by those grieving, but may become a source of anxiety.
- Offer to attend the funeral and any other occasion. Your presence with a hug or handshake will convey more than all the rehearsed remarks you could imagine.
- Be persistent, but thoughtful and patient. Your colleague may find it hard to accept help, but as months pass, they may need you more and more – not less and less.
- Listen without judging. Let them tell the same story over and over again – they will need to do this in their effort to understand what has happened.
- Acknowledge and accept their feelings, however uncomfortable. They have the right to feel the way they do. Be reassuring and supportive.
- Try to avoid the term “committed suicide”. Instead say “he took his own life” or “she died by suicide”.
- Remember that traditionally happy occasions like birthdays and holidays may be very difficult for your colleague. Acknowledge it and offer them the opportunity to talk, if they want to.
The reality is, the reasons for suicide are complex. But there’s so much we can do, together, to understand and reduce suicide at work, and making sure that everyone has the support they need, when they need it. 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. If you yourself are struggling with suicidal feelings, there is help – you are not alone.
We all have a part to play in tackling suicide. Whether that’s raising awareness, supporting someone who’s struggling, or pushing for policy change; it takes all corners of society to come together to create a movement. As an employer or a colleague, you have a vital role. Here are some ideas, from me to you, to help prevent suicide and to create an open culture where you work.
Educate yourself – understanding and empathy are key.
If you’re concerned a colleague is going through something, take some time to read up on mental health and suicide awareness. There’s loads of resources out there, and I’ve linked some brilliant ones in this toolkit, at the bottom of the page. Truthfully – even if you’re not concerned about anyone right now – it’s just good to be prepared. So get reading. And make sure you’re looking after yourself, too. Talking to someone about mental health can be upsetting. Remember that you aren’t alone and there are people that you can speak to too. You might feel comfortable just chatting to a friend or family member, but you can also contact the Samaritans to talk about what you’re going through.
Be aware – keep an eye on your staff and colleagues, and don’t be scared to ask.
We’re quite good at pretending to be okay, even when we’re not. And so, it’s not always easy to know if someone’s going through a tricky time. My dad never showed obvious 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 now, five years later, there were some warning signs that I should have acted on. So, if you’re worried, don’t be afraid to ask. Really. A conversation can, quite literally, save a life.
Other things to keep a lookout for include –
- Appearing distant, distracted, or withdrawn
- A change in behaviour – like running late often (when they wouldn’t usually)
- Not eating, a change in sleep patterns, or generally not looking after themselves
- Seeming flat or low energy
- Angry or irritable
- Drinking more alcohol, or using drugs
- Seeming reckless or making rash decisions
Suicide is preventable. And any action, big or small, can provide hope for someone who is struggling, and even save someone’s life.
Resources in this toolkit:
A 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.
This 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.
This guide can help managers to talk about suicide, spot the warning signs that someone might be at risk, and support their teams if someone takes their own life.
Conversations about painful subjects
Losing someone you are close to through suicide can be extremely traumatic, and trauma can overwhelm someone's ability to cope. This guide is designed to help NHS line managers encourage their staff open up about potentially traumatic things they have seen at work, but offers advice that can be helpful in any industry.
The Samaritans helpline is available 24 hours a day, providing a one-to-one listening service for anyone experiencing distress. It might be useful for you to share this information in your workplace, so employees know they always have someone to talk to if they need it.
A 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.