When my grandfather was 77, he died by suicide. He’d just received some devastating health news and after lengthy discussions with his family, he didn’t feel he could continue with treatment. He passed away the next morning from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. While my grandfather may not have been a young man, his death still affected me deeply. Not only did I miss him tremendously, but I also could not escape a lingering fear of how I would respond if someone I knew were suicidal.
One morning while driving to the office, I saw a billboard advertising the Samaritans, a UK based charity that provides support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide. I went through their training and started volunteering with the Samaritans every Tuesday night from 9pm to 1am for next year and a half. I answered calls from individuals who were going through difficult times and needed someone to listen. As it turns out, supporting people through really difficult times wasn’t as hard as I imagined it to be. It’s as simple as flexing our empathy and peer-to-peer support skills–– a lesson that’s positively impacted all aspects of my life as I strive to be a better listener and support partner.
Starting the Conversation: Talking About Mental Health
In the professional world, there’s traditionally been a separation between our “work selves” and our “personal selves.” But as the last few years have reminded us, this separation is often an artificial barrier. How we’re coping at home impacts our professional performance, just as challenges at work impact our personal lives. By talking openly about mental health in the workplace, you give others permission to do the same. You also help to remove the stigma around mental health challenges that can make it harder for people to be honest about their needs and seek support.
How to Help a Colleague Who is Struggling
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Americans under age 35, after unintentional injury, and one of top ten causes of death for all age groups. The last few years have been especially difficult for many people, and there’s a good chance someone you know may be struggling. Your colleagues may be feeling burned out, overwhelmed, anxious or isolated. World conflicts or national tragedies may have upended their foundations. Help can be as simple as creating space for honest discussion and listening with empathy. These are some places to start:
Check in with your team. While some of us are back in the office, others continue working remotely. Either way, it’s helpful to be intentional about checking in with your teammates. Ask questions during your one-on-ones or weekly stand-ups. It can take time for people to feel comfortable sharing their true feelings and creating a safe space is an important first step.
Listen without judgement. When someone shares how they’re feeling, focus on listening and responding with questions to learn more, rather than giving advice or opinions. Let the person know you will not judge their circumstances or their choices. You can tell the person that you value them, or say something like, “you’re important to me.” You don’t need to try to change what they are going through. The idea is to help remind them they have worth, that they contribute meaningfully to the lives of others, and that they are a value to the world.
Checking back in. Sometimes a person may have shared a struggle but then not have mentioned it in a while. This may happen when people do not feel well, feel ashamed about their struggles, or worry they’ll “be a burden.” If you’re checking in with someone because you’ve noticed a sign they might be struggling in the past, ask how they’re doing in a nonjudgmental way and remind their troubles are not a burden or problem to you in any way.
Know what to do if someone is suicidal. If someone tells you they are having suicidal thoughts, always take them seriously. Giving them a judgement-free space to talk about how they’re feeling is a tremendous value. People who have felt suicidal will often say what a huge relief it was to be able to talk about what they were experiencing. You may also be able to help the person create a support network by identifying people who could be of assistance to them, such as friends, family members or mental health professionals. It’s ok seek professional support on their behalf if you think they really need it, and the numbers below can help you find additional help. It’s also important to look after yourself, taking time to debrief about these calls with your trusted advisors and mental health providers.