Knowing, or even suspecting, that a colleague is contemplating suicide is frightening. It is common to feel unsure about what to do if the situation were to arise. Concerns about overstepping bounds with a colleague, making matters worse, or being wrong entirely cause people to hesitate. The positive news is that people can play a very valuable role in helping a co-worker who might be contemplating suicide. Knowing what to look for and how to respond before the need arises can help alleviate the self-doubt if the time comes to act.
Listen & Observe
It is not often that someone comes out and make a declaration of suicidal ideation, although there certainly are times that they do. Being aware of changes in patterns and behaviors through listening and observation is the first step in intervention. Some things to watch for include:
- Sudden or unusual isolation at work
- Apathy toward work outcomes (i.e. giving away assignments or leads, failure to complete work, missing meetings and deadlines)
- Neglect in hygiene or appearance
- Sudden, dramatic elevation in mood after a period of being depressed or withdrawn
- Expressing a feeling of things being “meaningless” or “hopeless”
- Sudden or out of place talk about suicide and death
- Indirect verbal cues such as “What’s the point of living like this anyway?” “I’m not doing anyone any good anymore.”
- Direct statements such as “I wish I could just end it.” “I wish I were dead.” “It would be easy to just not wake up tomorrow.”
Reflect & Respond
If a colleague shows warning signs of possible suicidal ideation, you should respond in a calm and nonjudgemental manner. You do not need to solve anything for them or understand the “why.” Simply listen, reflect their feelings, and encourage them to seek help. Don’t be afraid to ask directly if they are thinking about suicide. Asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. While it might feel awkward or embarrassing to have the conversation, begin with what you have noticed. A few examples of what to say:
“Richard, I noticed that you haven’t been showing up to our normal Wednesday meetings. You used to be really active in them and enjoy being a participant. I want you to know that I am concerned for you. How have you been feeling lately?”
“I couldn’t help but notice, Sarah, that you said you felt like there was no point in living life. Have you been contemplating suicide?”
“I am hearing you say that things have been really intense and you are overwhelmed to the point of wanting to give up. That sounds like a difficult place to be. I want you to know that I want it to be better for you and get the support you deserve.”
Acknowledge that talking about suicide is difficult and takes courage. Tell them how much you appreciate their honesty and openness.
Have resources available (some are listed below this article). You company should have specific information regarding EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) or other resources and benefits. Be aware of what those are.
Follow up. Make a point to connect with your colleague again. Let them know you are thinking about them or ask if they were able to get in touch with any of the resources that you provided. Also continue to speak with them as you normally would as well. It is fine to still have “chit-chat” and water-cooler conversation. This can help reduce the feeling that they need to isolate themselves.
If danger appears to be imminent, stay with the person in distress until you have found help. This could require enlisting help from other colleagues, or the person’s family or friends. You may accompany them to a mental health center, emergency room, or call 911 if they are in immediate danger to themselves.
Resources for help and training
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Lifeline provides immediate assistance to individuals in suicidal crisis by connecting them to the nearest available suicide prevention and mental health service provider through a toll-free telephone number—1-800-273-TALK (8255) that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Technical assistance, training, and other resources are available to crisis centers and mental health service providers participating in the network of services linked to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC)
SPRC provides prevention support, training, and materials to strengthen suicide prevention efforts. Among the resources found on its website is the SPRC Library Catalog (http://library.sprc.org/), a searchable database containing a wealth of information on suicide and suicide prevention, including publications, peer-reviewed research studies, curricula, and web-based resources. Many of these items are available online.