September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and as the director of Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, I’m literally a phone call away from business leaders who are working to improve their employee’s mental health by connecting those in need with resources. Even before the pandemic, the Hotline was a source for confidential and free crisis intervention and suicide prevention support for Idahoans. The Hotline has partnered with a number of businesses, both large and small, helping them to learn how to spot early warning signs of suicide, and how to safely talk about mental health concerns in the workplace.
During this time when many employees are dealing with the stress of remote work, schools going online and daycares closing or disrupted, I’m often asked if suicide is on the rise in Idaho. This isn’t an easy question to answer. As of 2017, Idaho had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation. While there are some cities in Idaho that have seen clusters of suicides this year, overall, it is too early to tell whether suicide rates are rising and if they are, if those changed rates are because of COVID-19 or its economic fallout. The Hotline has seen modest increases in calls over last year and our records indicate that stress, depression, anger and anxiety are showing up more in many people’s lives, but those calling the hotline are not necessarily showing increased suicidal thoughts or actions.
Businesses can help employees manage the stress of our current national crisis by educating themselves and their teams on best practices. The Hotline offers 90-minute (via Zoom), four-hour, and even two-day trainings, depending on a business’s needs. It’s always best if more than just an HR team is present; C-suite buy-in is essential when embarking on culture change on this or any other wellness topic. During trainings, we help employees learn how to ask the question directly: “Are you feeling suicidal?” and then offering suggested approaches if those employees answer yes.
There is a natural tendency to dance around tough questions related to people’s thoughts of suicide. Many may feel like it is impolite to ask directly. Through guided practice, we can help people become more comfortable asking those questions directly. When we hear from people who have attempted, they often share that they don’t want to answer a question like “How are you doing right now?” with the truth because they worried the person would be frightened by their response. Asking directly signals that you are ready and willing to hear the answer, and remain in connection with the person who is struggling.
Who is most at risk for suicide in Idaho often comes as a surprise. We all know someone who completed suicide who seemed so put together, so happy. Yet, the stereotype of a young, struggling person addicted to drugs or alcohol remains strong in our culture. In fact, most Idahoans who die by suicide are middle-aged, 45-55 year olds, and skew male and rural. In the past year, we’ve had callers to the hotline as young as 10 years old and as elderly as 85.
In a state like Idaho, suicide and mental health in general still carries a stigma, even for people who feel like they are not biased in that way. It’s an emotional topic, but the reality is you’re more likely to know someone who has completed suicide than someone who has died in an automobile accident. Here are five ways business leaders can help support their employees and help reduce suicide.
- Talk about it. If you notice someone struggling, ask them directly if they are thinking of suicide.
- Learn the risk factors and warning signs that precede a death by suicide. Train your employees to also learn what to watch for.
- Plan for crisis communications. What will your business do if an employee struggles with mental illness, attempts suicide or dies by suicide? Are you prepared? Do you have a plan for internally communicating the news and ensuring your teams feel supported? If the death involves an external-facing employee, how will you speak publicly about your employee’s situation or handle media inquiries in a way that supports the individual and their family, as well as your company’s brand?
- Post the Hotline’s number in your break room, or include it in employee wellness communications: (208) 398-4357.
You never know whose life it may save, and you don’t need to be suicidal to call. Texting is also an option. The Hotline can provide wallet cards for workplace distribution.
- Donate time or money. The Hotline is a nonprofit organization staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and we depend on the goodwill and investment of the community to be able to save the lives of Idahoans who are struggling. Our volunteer positions require a year-long commitment and involve weekly four-hour shifts. It’s a big time commitment, but people tell us it’s an incredibly meaningful one, too.
Lee Flinn, MBA, is the director of Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, a program of Jannus Inc. Learn more at https://www.idahosuicideprevention.org/.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide:
Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline: Text or call 1-208-398-HELP (4357)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Options For Deaf + Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889
En español: 1-888-628-9454
Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
Crisis Text Line: 741-741
Workplace Suicide Prevention: https://workplacesuicideprevention.com/
In emergency situations, call 911.