Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health advocate
Over a century ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim1 considered suicide as a society-determined phenomenon in which the role of work played a significant role.
According to Durkheim, the place of employment sets a social structure, moral values and a sense of identity for an individual — all of which helps give the individual meaning and reasons for living. When social structures like work disintegrate, the individual suffers, and sometimes suicide can be a consequence.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 800,000 people die by suicide each year and many millions more live through their suicide attempts. Almost all of these people were working at the time of their death — or had recently been working or have a family member who is working. Thus, the workplace is arguably the most cross-cutting system we have in suicide prevention.
Today, employers around the world are looking for answers on how to prevent suicidal despair, how to intervene when a worker is struggling with thoughts of suicide, and how to best respond to the crisis of a suicide attempt or death.
Why suicide prevention focus?
Many workplace mental health and wellness programs exist. Sometimes, due to internal stigma within these programs, the topic of suicide prevention is neglected. When employers do not talk about it, they cannot address some of the unique challenges within suicide prevention, intervention and crisis response that are not covered in mental health and wellness programs.
Research tells us that work-related issues like poor job security, low job control, work-related sleep disruption and workplace bullying are just some of the environmental experiences connected to suicide attempts and death.
Getting workers to counseling is not enough; workplaces dedicated to suicide prevention must also examine their policies and culture to see what environmental determinants might be contributing to suicidal intensity. If workplaces believe that the mental health symptoms and suicide crises are only due to untreated or mistreated mental illnesses, they may be engaging in a “state of denial” about their own systemic contribution to the problem.
Strategies and solutions
The United States recently released the first National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention, as part of a collaborative effort among the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and United Suicide Survivors International. In the guidelines, employers connect to eight guiding principles and nine practices to help them develop a comprehensive and sustained approach to suicide prevention.
Canada has had a “National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” since 2013 and Suicide Prevention Australia published its “Work and Suicide Position Statement” in 2014.
These strategic documents focus on increasing mental wellness and resiliency while reducing the potentially lethal consequences of toxic job strain and under-treated mental health concerns through three-pronged approach:
- Upstream: Build protective factors to prevent the suicidal despair from happening in the first place by enhancing life skills, improving suicide prevention literacy and reducing environmental psychosocial hazards.
- Midstream: Early and effective intervention identifies suicide intensity early, course-correct environmental psychosocial hazards and connects people who are suffering to qualified supports efficiently.
- Downstream: Safe and compassionate responses to the aftermath of suicide crises encourage employers to follow best practice guidelines to reduce the impact of suicide, suicide attempts and near misses while promoting dignity and empowerment for all affected.
These national efforts emphasise that suicide is a complex public health phenomenon best addressed with a culturally responsive, comprehensive and sustained approach that address issues from several angles and through multiple pathways.
1 Durkheim, Émile. “Suicide: A Study in Sociology.” Trans. Spaulding, John A. New York: The Free Press, 1979 (1897).