Co-workers can play a key role in suicide prevention

Workplace can be a point of intervention

Establishing an effective suicide prevention program in your company’ workplace must be grounded in educating employees to be the eyes and ears for the occupational health nurse or employee assistance coordinator, says the director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.

"The things to address first are raising awareness among co-workers, and dealing with the stigma associated with suicide," says Scott Ridgway, MS, executive director of TSPN. His agency coordinates suicide prevention programs across the state, in schools, community agencies, state offices, and private business and industry. "Once the company nurse or [human resources] director has brought in a program to get them trained on prevention in the workplace, then you need to educate employees on what to look for and how to respond," Ridgway advises.

Look for signs

What do employees need to know? Ridgway says they need to be advised on what behaviors should raise concern, and then what to do when they suspect a co-worker might be in danger of harming him or herself. (See warning signs.) Once employees have received training on what to look for, they need information that gives them the confidence to act on what they observe, should they become concerned about a co-worker, he says. "What a lot of people don’t realize is that suicide is preventable, and most suicidal individuals desperately want to live," says Ridgway. "Often, they have reached a point where they can’t see that there are alternatives to their problems."

When someone is suicidal, he or she often gives definite clues to their condition, but those clues often go undetected or, more commonly, are detected by others who don’t know how to respond. Fear of seeming intrusive or of offending the suicidal person must be conquered, so that the person can be directed to help, says Ridgway. Train employees not to fear getting involved with a co-worker in crisis, he advises. "They should know that showing interest, support, and being willing to listen to expressions of feeling without lecturing or debating whether suicide is right or wrong are critical steps."

Coping mechanisms

Co-workers also should refrain from expressing shock, be empathetic rather than sympathetic, and never promise to keep secret their concerns about the possibility that their colleague might be suicidal. "And don’t be afraid to take action and, if necessary, to remove the means for a person to harm himself," Ridgway advises. "Get help from individuals or agencies that specialize in crisis intervention and suicide prevention," he adds.

For more information, contact: Scott Ridgway, MS, executive director, Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. Phone: (615) 297-1077; e-mail: sridgway@tspn.org.