“on the edge” - Understanding Suicide in the Workplace
I have spent most of my working life with people who have been struggling with suicidal feelings. I vividly remember a time when I unexpectedly found a person hanging from the ceiling. I lifted the person up to help them keep breathing. They were heavy, I felt my strength ebbing as time went by, until more help arrived. This was during my time in the Intensive Care Unit of the Psychiatric Maudsley Hospital in London.
I was the CE Mind Manager for the Lighthouse Crisis service in Carlisle for the first few years of its existence. Anyone in a Mental Health crisis could ring us and come down in person that evening if they wanted. We had thousands of calls and hundreds of visits. Many people were struggling with thoughts of suicide, some had a plan to end their lives, on the edge of making the biggest decision in their lives.
Once you have made that decision and complete, you cannot come back, that's it.
21% of us will experience suicidal thoughts at some time in our lives. In a workplace of 50 staff, that is 10. They can be fleeting thoughts or more enduring. Many cannot control these thoughts and do not want to be having these thoughts.
"It is like someone torturing me in my mind. But they keep popping in. I cannot get rid of them. Because there is not that understanding, you feel really ashamed. You feel really weak."
You may hear someone say "ooh that's so selfish to think that way." If such conversations circulate in workplace banter or the grapevine, then a worker, line or senior manager experiencing suicidal feelings, are not really not going talk to someone about it at work. They are then going to keep spiraling down. For someone experiencing suicidal thoughts that's like pushing you towards the metaphorical decision cliff. Standing on the edge.
Did that happen with Caroline Flack? She had left her role presenting Love Island after being charged with assaulting Burton. On the day Caroline was found dead, a paramedic found a note that said "I hope me and Lewis can one day find harmony". Completed suicide can feel like a traumatic bereavement for those that loved Caroline. Caroline Flack's family have released an unpublished Instagram post that they say she wrote shortly before she died. It revealed the unbearable pain she was experiencing.
I've been pressing the snooze button on many stresses in my life - for my whole life. I've accepted shame and toxic opinions on my life for over 10 years and yet told myself it's all part of my job. No complaining. I've been having some sort of emotional breakdown for a very long time. I've lost my job. My home. My ability to speak. And the truth has been taken out of my hands and used as entertainment. I'm so sorry to my family for what I have brought upon them and for what my friends have had to go through.
When the pain gets that intolerable, add in depression that has just booted the door down. To Caroline and many others, completing suicide seems at the time, to be the only solution. No other way out. That's the time when reasons for dying outweigh reasons for living.
"when I had my first real intense feelings of suicide, I felt there was no reason to live anymore. I had lost everything in life. I felt I was worthless, no point."
Only those of us who have experienced this terrible tragedy can truly understand None of us to need to suffer alone. Together we can help each other. - https://uksobs.org/
What if a completed suicide happens to someone who works for you?
What if there are staff right now privately struggling with suicidal thoughts?
Here are ten suggestions to reflect on.
- Make a personal commitment to prioritise Mental Health in your company. Let's tick the box is not a long term commitment. But it is a start!
- Find like-minded others and come up with a rough Mental Health plan and timescale to implement. Longer-term plans are better than short to medium-term ones. Make sure early on Line Managers are exposed to Mental Health awareness. They are your foundation stones, without them the Mental Health wall collapses.
- Take your draft plan to the decision-makers in your company but make sure you have the HR evidence why we should do this and the economic business case. This can take time. So wait, be patience, and practice nudging.
- Search out people in your company who are enthusiastic and want to be Mental Health Champions. Don't select, that comes later. Create a network of more than three, the number can grow in time. These Champions do have the possibility to deliver direct training themselves. This network is really important because of the way COVID 19 has fundamentally changed work life.
- Aim big – change culture and attitude around Mental Health but do not give up when things don't seem to be working out. There will always be people who are cynical and negative. When they become more and more in the minority, some will change their minds. Think Big also means rethinking how much do a company and workforce need to know about what's going on at home. COVID 19 has also fundamentally changed home life. So sharing home pressures at work are really important in Mental Health prevention when it comes to sickness absence and presenteeism.
- Start meaningful conversations about Mental Health awareness include suicide and promote suicide awareness. Use your comms. and marketing if you have them but make sure you use lived experience as key messages. Having a worker stand up and publicly say "this is what happened to me" is emotionally powerful and gives permission for others to say "it's happened to me as well".
- Connect with local Mental Health services include private, statutory, and third sector, map them and understand how they work and most importantly their limitations. Occupational Health and employee assistance, and specialised psychotherapy services are your formal connectors to outside Mental Health services when things get complex.
- Formalise company emergency procedures for Mental Health and Suicide.
- Review policies such as death in service. Implement new ones such as wellness action plans.
- Promote to the outside environment you are Mental Health aware. Do include your work on Mental Health in contract bids and as an added value within your products and services.
If you have been affected by anything in this blog post and would like support for yourself or workforce please contact me on 075425843309 or through our contact form.