How To Support Your Colleagues In Suicide Prevention


Supporting your team’s mental health should go beyond World Suicide Prevention Day. 

On the 10th September every year, World Suicide Prevention Day is held to recognise another major public health issue. The event encourages people around the world to engage with each other and spread awareness of suicide prevention approaches and techniques. The theme this year is “Working Together to Prevent Suicide” which feels timely given our other shared responsibility in responding to the global coronavirus threat. 

While World Suicide Prevention Day places a yearly spotlight on the devastating impact that suicide can have in families and across communities, we need to be alert to the risk of suicide every day. This isn’t comfortable or enjoyable. Talking about suicide and speaking to those we are in close contact with who are struggling is not easy. It is easier, however, than coming to terms with the loss of someone close who has taken their own life. 

Harrowing statistics

In Scotland, the suicide rate in 2018 increased by 52.7% among young people aged between 15-24. In fact, across the whole of the UK, suicide in under 25s increased by 23.7%. But it’s not just young people. The group most at risk of suicide in the UK are men aged between 45-49. In 2018 the suicide rate for this group increased. 

The global pandemic has increased isolation and uncertainty which negatively affect our mental health. A survey in the US found that up to 45% of Americans felt the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health – 19% of them felt it had a “major impact”. 

The Centre of Mental Health in the UK announced in July that the pandemic is very likely to increase the number of people experiencing a mental health problem in the next two years. Those impacted by the isolation and uncertainty the pandemic has placed on society are only a part of the population this analysis takes into consideration. There are those impacted by the recession following the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic; those bereaved who have lost loved ones to the virus; those who have received treatment in hospital for the virus; those who work in health and care services; those with longstanding mental health problems; those who are facing violence and abuse; and those from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. 

It is impossible to quantify the grief and trauma that will impact such high numbers of the population over the coming years. Those suffering live all around us: they are our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Working together to prevent suicide therefore expands to all areas of our life, including work. 

Signs that someone is suffering from poor mental health

How many times over the last six months have we heard the symptoms we should all be looking out for? A high temperature. A new, continuous cough. A loss or change to sense of smell or taste. For those who have returned to work, and especially for those who work in senior management or HR, the processes surrounding this pandemic have taken over days, weeks or (perhaps) months of their time. There is a clear process though (notwithstanding those who are asymptomatic): exhibit one of these symptoms, immediately self isolate and book a test. In workplaces across the world management can hear an employee coughing and they can see the temperature reading on the thermometer during daily checks.

Spotting someone who is at risk of suicide is not so simple. Unlike a virus, suicidal ideation (ie. thinking about, considering or planning suicide) has less obvious signs. And even if you do spot the signs, most people don’t know what their next steps are. 

With all of the above taken into account, it is undeniable that via Zoom calls or in person (when we eventually all move back into offices), managers are going to increasingly find themselves face to face with team members suffering from mental health disorders. As key support in our working lives, managers should be prepared for this. 

What can you do, as a manager, to support your team’s mental health?

Speaking about mental health and suicide is not comfortable, nor is it easy to bring up. Being prepared for these conversations is key and there are a number of things you can do that will help you when they arise: 

  1. Know the signs: know what the most common signs of poor mental health or distress are. BUPA have put together a list of some early signs that someone may be struggling with or suffering from a mental health issue. 
  2. Catch up regularly with your team members on a one to one basis: ensure that regardless of whether you are working from home or from an office you have regular scheduled check-ins with your team. Don’t just focus on objectives but ask them how they are doing. If you have noticed some concerning signs that they may be struggling with a mental health issue, lead the conversation with concern for them. 
  3. Listen: if one of your team decide to talk to you about how they are feeling, make time to listen to them. Let them speak in a safe and non judgemental environment. 
  4. Learn about suicide: there may be instances where you could be concerned that a team member is considering taking their own life. There are some insightful resources online that outline how you can be supportive of someone having suicidal thoughts. ‘Rethink’ provide step by step guidance on supporting someone who might be having suicidal thoughts. The Zero Suicide Alliance have recently made available for free a 20 minute training session for anyone looking for more guidance on supporting and talking about suicide. 
  5. Know how your company or organisation can support: many companies nowadays offer a number of ‘benefits’ that support the mental health of their employees. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) often provide a phone based counselling service that employees can access confidentially 24/7 for guidance on a number of topics. Some other organisations offer in-house counselling support or private healthcare with counselling included. If you don’t know what your organisation does to support employees’ mental health then get in touch with your HR department for information (and suggest they should share it with the wider organisation!)
  6. Be flexible: working from home has become the norm for so many previously office based workers in 2020. For some people this will be beneficial for their mental wellbeing. For others, it may isolate them and negatively impact their mental health. Being flexible with working location is going to become much more important in working life going forward. If it is within guidance, safe and possible to have some people back to the office then prioritise those who feel isolated working from home. And once we are all back (if ever) in the office, be more flexible with those who find it helpful for their mental health to work from home. 
  7. Reflect on your management style: management style can be a factor when it comes to developing stress at work. Long term stress can lead to a variety of mental health issues. Reflect on your own management style and consider if there are things you can do to alleviate stress in your team. The Health and Safety Executive have produced ‘Management Standards’ that outline the main risks if not properly followed. Ask your team for feedback: what can you as a manager do to alleviate stress for them and is there anything you currently do that increases stress? Listen to what they have to say and avoid being defensive. 
  8. Know about other sources of support: some smaller organisations may not have a huge amount of support offered to employees for their mental health. In these circumstances it may be helpful to know of local or national charities who support people struggling with their mental health. The NHS have an extensive list of national charities that support a wide range of personal situations. There are a number of local charities, such as the Joshua Nolan Foundation in Edinburgh, who offer support to those suffering from mental health issues. 

It is important to remember that not everyone who is struggling with their mental health will be open and willing to talk about it. It is also important to note that as their manager you are there to support them in doing the best they can at work, but you are not their counsellor. 

You will be best placed to respond to a staff member who is struggling with their mental health if you create a safe environment for them to speak and focus on recommending resources that will help them to address how they are feeling with a professional. It is not your responsibility as their manager to heal them, please remember this. 

Most of all, look after your own mental health and use the resources you would recommend to your team members if you are personally struggling. 

Conversations with even those closest to you about mental health can be difficult, but educating yourself through any online or offline resources, listening to those who are struggling and knowing what resources you can point them to for support will make those conversations so much easier. 

The Joshua Nolan Foundation is a suicide prevention charity based in Edinburgh. We provide funding for up to 80% of specialist counselling sessions for those at risk of or impacted by suicide in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas. We believe that suicide is preventable. If you or anyone you know requires our support then please visit our website here for more information. If you are in crisis then please contact The Samaritans on 116 123. Or call 999 if it is an emergency. 

References and further resources