Nov 23, 2019 is Survivor Day, a nationally recognized day for those affected by suicide to join for support and healing. Why is it important to recognize such a day? As a leading Employee Assistance Program provider (EAP), we see first hand the loss and devastation that occurs after a suicide – for a family, friends and co-workers. That’s why we know how important it is to talk openly about suicide and help employers understand how they can help their employees who may be in need.
The Suicide Rate Has Been Increasing
Suicide happens far more frequently than you might think. The suicide rate in America is up 33% in less than 20 years. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-34 and fourth leading cause of death among 35-54 year olds.
The suicide rate is up 33% in less than 20 years
Why the suicide rate has increased so rapidly is open to debate. Alcohol and substance abuse, increasing rates of depression, the declines in the family structure and sense of community, economic woes, even smartphone usage have all been associated with suicide in one way or another.
What’s more mystifying about the suicide rate is the fact that the rate today is about the same as it was 30 years ago. Death by suicide in the US declined in the 80’s and 90’s before reversing course at the turn of the century.
Suicide is Preventable
The reasons for the increase in the suicide rate may be complicated, but what is clear is that suicide is preventable. In 2017, 47,173 people died by suicide in the US. The number of suicide attempts was nearly 30 times higher than that. That’s over 1.3 million people who attempted suicide, but survived.
Survivors often describe that it wasn’t the desire to die that drove their suicide attempt, but a desire to escape pain. That pain can be physical, but is often mental pain. Mental pain can be difficult to acknowledge because of the stigma that exists around mental health issues.
What Should Employers Do?
Employers can play a significant role in helping reduce the number of suicides. The first step for employers is to help eliminate the stigma of mental health. Too often, those who most need help are reluctant to ask for it. According to Suzanne Delbanco, in How Employers Can View Mental Health Stigma, employees may be afraid to admit, even to themselves, that they need support with mental health. Or they may not be aware that their suffering may be due to anxiety or depression. Those who do recognize the need for treatment may be afraid to leave the office for therapy appointments for fear that co-workers will notice. Many also fear if their employer finds out they have a mental health condition, there may be negative repercussions. A 2017 survey showed that 31% of employees say they would be afraid of being labeled as weak, and 22% fear it would impact their opportunities for promotion.
Employers can help remove the stigma of mental health and it’s in their best interest to do so. Here’s what we’ve seen work:
- Your EAP, if it’s truly a comprehensive EAP, can be your most powerful weapon in combating mental health stigma and increasing employee access to help. Beware if you have a “free” EAP embedded in a disability insurance bundle though as these EAPs are less likely to offer the full array of services found in a comprehensive EAP.
- Awareness and education are critically important. Your EAP should be very willing and adept in helping to build awareness and educate your employees. Initiatives we’ve seen work include:
- Hosting lunch and learns and guest speakers on behavioral health topics in the workplace
- Offering a monthly topical webinar for employers to use to educate their employees and normalize behavioral health issues
- Providing educational newsletters
- Providing special presentations to educate managers and supervisors about key mental health issues: mental health first aid, suicide prevention, PTSD awareness and substance abuse
- Work with your EAP to promote awareness of the services offered and promote easy access to behavioral health treatment services at company benefit fairs.
- Create a culture of acceptance. For example, when speaking to employees about medical benefits, include behavioral benefits and issues in the conversation, thereby normalizing behavioral health. Also, incorporate language in company policies to prevent stereotyping and eliminate improper language/ labeling or bullying of employees with behavioral health challenges.
- Provide access to an Interactive Screening Program allowing employees to anonymously take a screening test for stress, depression and anxiety. Then, if they wish, they can dialogue with a behavioral health professional to understand their screening results and, if needed, connect them to the appropriate form of assistance – a therapist, psychiatrist, treatment program or self-help or support group.
At Espyr®, we offer an industry-first Interactive Screening Program (ISP) that provides employees with a convenient, anonymous way to connect with a qualified counselor about available service options through their EAP – and address their concerns before they escalate. Offered in association with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the program has been especially effective. As one participant put it, “I was finally able to let someone know how badly I was feeling without any judgment.”
- Develop a Peer Support Program to train employees to assist distressed employees and encourage them to access professional behavioral health services.
- Larger companies should consider placing behavioral health clinicians on-site at workplaces to assess, refer and provide short-term counseling. A 2015 survey by the The National Association of Worksite Health Centers claims that 45% of all employers offer some sort of on-site health clinic. Adding a behavioral health clinician to an on-site clinic is a natural wellness extension and further helps normalize the concept of mental health.
- As behavioral health professionals, let your EAP help you draft policies that permit employees to leave work to keep behavioral health or EAP appointments. Structure benefits and policies with the awareness that many areas are underserved in terms of psychiatrists, and alternatives to psychiatry may be needed.
Awareness and education through frank and open discussions and training is critical in removing mental health stigma. Studies have shown that more accepting workplaces have happier employees with better productivity.
Recognize The Warning Signs of Depression
In addition to removing the stigma of mental health, employers need to learn to recognize the signs of depression and provide appropriate training for managers and supervisors. Beyond the obvious benefit to employees, identifying and addressing depression is in employers’ best interests. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and the CDC estimates it’s also the cause of 200 million lost workdays per year, costing employers $44 billion in lost productivity.
Depression can manifest itself in many different ways: physically, behaviorally and emotionally. Physically, changes in appetite, aches and pains, changes in sleep habits and feeling extremely tired can all occur. Behaviorally, those with depression may exhibit irritability, restlessness, trouble concentrating or difficulty completing daily routines. Increased alcohol consumption or reckless behavior can occur. Emotionally, a strong and consistent feeling of sadness, anxiety or hopelessness may be noticed.
50% of those who die by suicide were afflicted with major depression
Your EAP or wellness program provider should be ready to work with you to develop training programs for managers and employees on how to recognize signs of depression. Policies need to be in place directing employees on what to do when at-risk employees are identified. Recognizing someone who is suffering from depression is important because 50% of those who die by suicide were afflicted with major depression, and the suicide rate for people with major depression is eight times greater than that of the general population.
Observing Survivor Day
If you are a suicide survivor or you know someone who is, please encourage them to reach out this Survivor Day.
To locate support groups, or to join other survivors in Survivor Day events near you, visit Espyr’s partner in suicide awareness and prevention programming, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org. Or reach out to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Your EAP can provide support for survivors and help them access healing communities and other resources. If you are not sure if your employer offers an assistance program, contact your human resources representative.
Espyr is a leader in comprehensive EAP and behavioral health coaching programs. Our innovative programs are designed to support our mission of helping people and organizations achieve their full potential. To learn more about how Espyr can help your company click here or call 888-570-3479.