Promoting Suicide Prevention Strategies in the Workplace

There was a heightened focus on global suicide prevention in September 2019 with World Suicide Prevention Day and RU OK? Day. Suicide prevention is an issue for the whole community. Preventing the rising numbers of deaths by suicide requires coordinated and combined efforts from all levels of government, health care systems, clinicians, workplaces, education and corporate sectors, community groups, insurers and the media; along with family, friends and peer networks. Our primary interest is the critical role that the workplace has to provide strategies for employees experiencing suicidal thoughts. For this article, we delve into the Suicide Prevention 2020 Report from the Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission in search of strategies that business can use to support their employees.

Understanding the Problem

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report that deaths by suicide numbers are higher than ever. Over a year, 65,000 people attempt suicide, and almost 600,000 have suicidal thoughts. For every death by suicide, as many as 30 people try to take their own life. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-44. Most deaths by suicide in Australia are among people of working age.

Suicidal behaviours can range from thinking about suicide to making plans, to attempting to take their life and finally death by suicide. The most reliable indicator of suicide risk is a previous attempt, people who attempt to commit suicide remain at high risk for up to a year.

The most common and significant risk factor associated with suicide is mental illness. Many people who take their own lives have symptoms of depression in the three months preceding their deaths. The conditions with the highest risk of suicidal behaviour are major depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. Also, people with alcohol or other drug problems have a higher risk of dying by suicide than the general population.

A person becomes more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts when they are socially isolated or feel they are a burden to others. Long term unemployment, chronic illness, homelessness or other difficulties create these vulnerabilities. Other contributing factors are a person’s access to lethal means of suicide; cultural and social attitudes towards suicide; contagion effects or clustering of suicide; impulsive or aggressive behaviour; and an inability to deal with distressing emotions.

The World Health Organization suggests worker suicide is the result of a complex interaction between individual vulnerabilities and work-related environmental factors. These conditions trigger stress reactions and contribute to poor mental wellbeing.

Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace to build a mentally healthy workplace that includes suicide prevention strategies. They need to reduce stigma and discrimination surrounding suicide and mental illness.

See our article, Suicide Numbers and Suicidal Thoughts on the Rise

Government Initiatives for Suicide Prevention

The Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission has developed a prevention plan across six areas:

  1. Increase public awareness and create a united action – this includes delivering public education, promoting mental health services, reducing stigma and discrimination, and encouraging lived experience storytelling.
  2. Develop local support and community prevention across the whole lifespan – this includes promoting mental health literacy programmes, strengthening suicide prevention protocols, and mapping pathways to care to appropriate services and support.
  3. Coordinate and target services for high-risk groups – this includes interagency coordination, delivering responsive, high-quality treatment and support, and strengthening early intervention services.
  4. Share responsibility across government and business to build mentally healthy workplaces – this includes helping a company to fulfil their legal obligations for employee mental wellbeing and safety by implementing, monitoring and accrediting workplace mental health and suicide prevention initiatives.
  5. Increase suicide prevention training –  this includes promoting training and self-help activities for high-risk groups, and peer support in schools, the vocational education sectors and community groups.
  6. Provide timely data and evidence to improve responses and services – this includes analysing the latest reports,  and monitoring and evaluating initiatives for ongoing improvement.

Suicide Prevention Strategies for the Whole Community

The BMC Public Health study suggests that we need an industry-wide focus on suicide prevention. We can address suicide at three levels:

  1. Primary level, to reduce risk factors for suicide and promote protective factors,
  2. Secondary level, to ensure people are supported and able to access help when they need it, and
  3. Tertiary level, to providing treatment for those at acute risk and rehabilitation back into work.

There is a noted lack of help-seeking among males concerning mental health problems. Stigma and fear are recognised reasons for the reluctance to seek help.  However, the workplace can help to reduce stigma by openly speaking about mental health and develop suicide prevention strategies. The BMC study found that colleagues at work played an important supportive role in suicide prevention. They actively listen, advise and comfort workers experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

Increasing Suicide Prevention Training

Equipping workers with the knowledge and skills to identify signs and symptoms of declining mental health is the first step. Utilising people in the workplace with knowledge of suicidal symptoms is another excellent initiative, and this is where training in mental health first aid is useful.

See our article, Does Mental Health First Aid Training Help?

Suicide prevention training aims to upskill employees to increase their resilience and competence in supporting others. Training helps them to identify someone with suicidal ideation or suicidal behaviour.

Education in suicide prevention can also increase general understanding of common mental illnesses to reduce stigma. We should provide training on how to discuss suicide with someone who may be at risk. Finally, we need to increase the ability of employees to identify the warning signs. They can then encourage help-seeking and refer people to appropriate professional help.

The Tap Into Safety Mental Health Training increases mental health literacy on workplace stressors to teach effective coping strategies using animated storytelling. We have developed several out of the box employee mental health courses with one focusing on suicidal thoughts and self-harm. The training can be completed online, on tablets and mobile phones in under 5 minutes and draws on a MicroLearning methodology.

If you would like to know more about our Mental Health Training, contact us today.

To Conclude

Death by suicide is increasing year on year in Australia, and we need to do more. Suicide prevention requires a coordinated effort from all levels of government, health care systems, clinicians, workplaces, education and corporate sectors, community groups, insurers and the media; along with family, friends and peer networks. For this article, we looked at the Suicide Prevention 2020 Report from the Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission to search for strategies that business can use to support their employees. One key area in suicide prevention is training.  We need to equip workers with the knowledge and skills to identify signs and symptoms of declining mental health. From there we can use people in the workplace with knowledge of suicidal symptoms to help and support others. We need to provide training on how to discuss suicide with someone who may be at risk.

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