Viewpoint: World Suicide Prevention Day and COVID-19

By Jonathan Segal September 10, 2020
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Viewpoint: World Suicide Prevention Day and COVID-19

​Today, Sept. 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death among young people in the world, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization.

Not everyone who attempts suicide completes it: Far more attempts at suicide are made than are successful, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In fact, there were 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2017 in the U.S. alone.

Then came COVID-19. In addition to its staggering death toll and economic calamity, the mental health challenges brought about by the pandemic cannot be underestimated. According to a survey of more than 5,000 adults conducted in mid-June by the CDC, nearly 11 percent reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey. In a 2018 survey that focused on a 12-month period, not 30 days, 4 percent said they had considered suicide within the 12 months.

This reported increase in thoughts of suicide corresponds with an increase in depression, anxiety, and trauma- and stressor-related disorders (TSRD), as well as substance abuse, to cope with the stress and emotions related to COVID-19. Of course, self-medication through the use of alcohol or other drugs is an issue that employers have attempted to help workers overcome for years. But due to the pandemic, substance abuse is estimated to have increased as much as 300 percent this year, various studies have projected.

"The year we are living through amounts to an unprecedented confluence of risk factors for mental health distress and suicidal ideation, both of which have increased dramatically in recent months," said Patrick Krill, a leading authority on mental health and addiction and founder of Krill Strategies, a consulting firm in Minneapolis. "Compounding this problem is the fact that we are frequently only interacting with our colleagues and peers remotely, thereby making the detection of distress more difficult, and candid, personal conversations [are] more awkward and less likely. The need to prioritize mental health in the workplace has never been more pressing."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

At this stage of the pandemic, we all need to ask ourselves what we can do as HR professionals to help employees with mental health issues so that suicide is less likely to occur. Here are eight suggestions:

  1. Adjust your thinking (and communications) on mental health as necessary. Regardless of intent, telling those with depression to "deal with it" or those with anxiety to "cope with it" is harmful. Substitute "cancer" for "depression," and you will see how cold or ignorant someone might sound suggesting depression is a weakness or that it will evaporate while breathing deeply during a brisk walk. In the context of COVID-19, stay away from self-affirming bravado about everyone needing to be tough, fight hard, etc. This kind of talk only increases the unwarranted shame those who have a mental disorder might be feeling and decreases the likelihood that individuals who need help will get it.
  2. Offer your employees access to professional help through an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP is an inexpensive way to offer employees anonymous support for myriad issues, including substance abuse, marital problems and suicidal ideation. If you don't have an EAP, make the business case to get one now. Remind your employees of the EAP, and encourage them to use it. Share utilization rates when helpful, since employees may be more likely to use an EAP if they know others are using it, too.
  3. Revisit and relaunch your wellness program. Is there enough focus in your organization on mental health? Do not assume the answer is yes. We need to add light to the issue so that people do not hide for fear of societal judgment and the life-threatening risks that go with it. As Krill stated, "Mental health in the workplace has never been more pressing." So recalibrate and relaunch your wellness program in a way that is likely to be heard by onsite and remote workers alike.
  4. Share with all employees information about the U.S. national suicide prevention hotline. The number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255). HR is not responsible if someone attempts or completes suicide. But good leaders do not limit their caring to their legal responsibility.
  5. Educate all employees on the potential warning signs of suicidal ideation and possible sources of help. You are more likely to get employees to attend and participate in a program about this topic if your focus when announcing the program is on how employees may be able to help their family members and friends. Attendance is not an act of self-disclosure but a concern for others.
  6. Encourage managers to reach out to their direct reports if they have objective reasons to be concerned. Of course, a manager should not ask an employee if he or she is suicidal. But the manager could talk about specific behaviors that he or she has noticed and then indirectly but genuinely invite dialogue. Consider saying, "I've had good days and hard days. I think that's true for most of us. Are you OK, honestly? I'm concerned because [describe behaviors without labels]." Then listen and act as appropriate. Is there some legal risk in opening the door? You bet. If the employee acknowledges emotional struggles, you may risk violating the Americans with Disabilities Act if you later take adverse action against the employee. But the bigger risk is not taking steps to prevent a tragedy.
  7. Acknowledge your vulnerability. Implicit in the prior recommendation is the suggestion that managers acknowledge their own vulnerability in a measured way. This increases their credibility and may encourage others to get help. I will practice what I preach: I'm grateful that I have a job and can work remotely and that family and close friends are well. But I am not great. Most days are good, but some are very hard. Acknowledging that some days are hard makes them a little less hard.
  8. Get help if you have had thoughts about or have attempted suicide. Reaching out for help is not a weakness. I cannot think of any greater act of strength.

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City, and a frequent contributor to SHRM.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law. This article should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.

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