You knew your coworker felt depressed, squeezed by the financial hit she and her husband took when his employer laid him off, and the overwhelming pressure when her kids hated school by Zoom. Now, she worries every day that sending her kids to school exposes them to danger.
Throughout the pandemic, she made off-hand comments that concerned you, but what she said this morning felt more serious. “With the delta variant and people refusing to get vaccinated, I don’t see any end in sight. I’m failing my kids by not home-schooling them. But they hated staying home, and I was so scattered I didn’t feel I was helping them. I’m worn out and feel like giving up.” These comments, coupled with how haggard she looks, and the social media post on suicide among veterans she showed you two weeks ago have you on high alert.
How worried about her do you need to be? If you don’t act and something tragic happens to her, will you be able to forgive yourself? If these questions scare you, you’re not alone. Suicide rates have risen 30 percent in the last 20 years, with those suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue among the most at risk.
Even more frightening, you may be the only or one of the few individuals who realizes your coworker is in trouble. If this fits you, here’s what you need to know.
When someone you know struggles to the point that they lose their grip on hope, you can be the difference in their feeling connected to and supported by others. While intervening in a volatile situation poses risks to you and them, you can help them get the additional support they need. As the American Medical Association notes in its STEPS Forward materials, “It is vital to take action if you suspect a colleague is demonstrating warning signs for suicide.”
In the 1970s, I ran a suicide prevention counseling center in Nome, Alaska. When the center opened, the suicide rate in Nome was 44 times national average. A team of peer counselors and I took it to zero and kept it at zero. We took action when someone talked about feeling hopeless and trapped in unending problems or mentioned that they were a burden to their family. If you’d like a list of indicators that signal the potential of suicidal thoughts, you can find them on suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
As the person’s coworker, you can listen, giving your colleague the chance to express and sort out their feelings and to redevelop the sense they can cope, and the future isn’t hopeless. A reasonable first step is letting your coworker know you care by saying, “I’m concerned about you.”
Depending on how your colleague responds, you can mention the comment or behavior that triggered your concern. In your conversation, don’t talk too much, judge the other person, or provide unsolicited advice. Suggest they speak with someone who can help them, whether that’s the HR department or an employee assistance provider.
Because you’re not trained, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255. Even better, you can ask your coworker to call.
Your coworker’s depression and the responsibility you may feel to get needed help can weigh on your mind to the point where you begin to own negative feelings yourself. Take the time you need to process what you’re feeling. Remind yourself your job is to extend a hand and get your colleague to trained help, and not to be everything your coworker needs.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.