Workplace Wellbeing

I Lost a Close Friend to Suicide. Here's Why Workplace Prevention Matters.

I’m sharing my story to help HR and People leaders better understand suicide ideation, recognize the warning signs, and offer support to those who are silently struggling.

Written by
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Jackie Stevens
Senior Manager, Commercial Sales
Clinically reviewed by
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A woman comforts a man struggling with suicidal thoughts by putting her hand on his shoulder

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    Sensitive content warning: This article discusses suicide.

    While I was growing up, I was fortunate to have a mom and grandma who normalized conversations about mental health. These discussions were a regular and open occurrence during my childhood. 

    However, when I was in my early teens, my parents went through a challenging divorce, just as the 2008 recession hit. This situation took a toll on our family, especially when my mom lost her job due to the economic downturn. 

    I began working at 14 to support our household and juggled three jobs during high school. As a result of these pressures, I began experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder and frequently had panic attacks. 

    Mental health struggles and suicidal ideation

    As a teenager, there were moments when it felt like a personal betrayal to go to work while I struggled with severe mental health challenges. To cope with the pressures of maintaining three jobs during that period, I resorted to dissociation as a coping mechanism—a habit that can be harmful.  

    During this time, I also wrestled with suicidal ideation, a deeply unsettling experience that has stayed with me into my adult life. 

    I’m thankful that my mom fostered an environment where discussing mental health was normalized, allowing me to acknowledge my struggles and openly seek help. I began therapy in 10th grade, and when I turned 18, I started medication for my anxiety. 

    This was a transformative experience, like putting on glasses and seeing the world clearly for the first time. 

    Losing a close friend to suicide

    Over three years ago, I experienced the devastating loss of a close friend and coworker, Andrea, who died by suicide. We initially crossed paths in New York City, where we worked together at my previous job. Andrea was fiercely loyal, always ready to advocate for those she cared about and believed were underserved.

    Our time together often involved late nights out, followed by working side by side the next day, creating a blend of beautiful and chaotic moments. 

    Reflecting on our shared history, I recognize the warning signs of Andrea’s declining mental health. These signs were, at times, masked by periods of outward normalcy.  However, she began missing work, her apartment fell into disarray, she neglected her dog’s care, and she adopted a pattern of staying in bed during the day and going out all night. 

    It’s easy to rationalize concerning behaviors like this, and dismiss them as someone simply going through a temporary rough patch. 

    Recognizing suicide warning signs

    With the clarity of hindsight, I can now discern the warning signs in Andrea’s behavior. The following observations stand out:

    1. First, she began living in a way that seemed disconnected from her values, which was entirely out of character. She had always been a hard worker, and started frequently missing work. Her deep love for her dog, which had always been evident in her excellent care, began to wane. Her decisions became increasingly impulsive and abrupt.
    2. Andrea suddenly resigned from her job in New York and planned to move outside the country to her mom’s house, even though her plans were somewhat vague. She ended up moving to a city in Texas, where she’d never been, without a job lined up or knowing anyone. This raised concerns for me, given the isolation she was experiencing and the rashness of her decision-making.  

    All this unfolded in early 2020, just as the world grappled with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After relocating, she secured a tech position, made new friends, and even began dating. It seemed like things were improving for her. 

    However, a series of events quickly took a toll on her well-being. Without work-based insurance, she couldn’t afford her medications and had to stop taking them. Additionally, the job offer she had received was rescinded due to the pandemic. 

    As she struggled to find employment, her demeanor took a darker turn. Our phone conversations became somber, and she began discussing thoughts of suicide. There were multiple breaking points, but her hopelessness deepened after losing the job offer. She felt isolated, had lost contact with her family, lacked access to her medications, had no source of income, and was accumulating debt—all while the world was shutting down.

    What saddens me is that Andrea was quite clear about her intention to end her life. I shared suicide hotline numbers with her and urged her to file for unemployment, wait for the first stimulus check, apply for COBRA, and seek a new job. However, she was exhausted, broke, alone, and off her medications. 

    In the years since her passing, I’ve realized that she needed more intensive support long before she reached the point of hopelessness. 

    Following her suicide attempt, Andrea spent a week in the hospital. During this time, her family struggled to figure out how to manage the mounting medical bills incurred while the hospital kept her alive. Regrettably, medical treatment couldn’t save her, and she was taken off of ventilation at noon on March 29, 2020. 

    Suicide prevention in the workplace

    I’m not alone in experiencing the loss of someone I deeply care about to suicide. The most recent data from the CDC, although still incomplete for the past two years, paints a concerning picture: in 2021, 48,183 people died by suicide in the U.S., equating to one death every 11 minutes. 

    However, the scope of the problem is even broader:

    • 12.3 million adults seriously contemplated suicide
    • 3.5 million adults made a plan
    • 1.7 million adults made an attempt

    It’s critical for HR professionals and People leaders to understand that suicidal ideation exists on a spectrum. Researchers have found that suicidal thoughts and behaviors can manifest in a “waxing and waning” manner, taking various forms.

    This complexity can make addressing the issue challenging, but the reality is that a significant number of individuals fall somewhere on this spectrum. In many workplaces, employees may be dealing with suicidal ideation or even actively planning suicide. 

    Work can serve as both a risk factor and a key preventive factor in suicide. These facts underscore the importance of cultivating a workplace culture where suicide prevention is treated seriously.

    There’s no need for HR leaders, supervisors, and colleagues to overreact to occasional tardiness, absenteeism, or challenging days, but it is vital to take a closer look at recurring performance issues. Recognizing the potential signs and offering support can make a significant difference in the lives of those silently struggling. 

    How to help employees who may be considering suicide

    When Andrea began missing work and displaying signs of mental health challenges, our workplace overlooked the underlying issues and regarded them solely as performance-related problems.

    There was a pivotal moment during a company retreat when Andrea’s mental health struggles were glaringly evident. She had difficulty sleeping and spent a long time talking to a member of the HR team about her ongoing difficulties. However, the HR professional was ill-equipped to provide necessary assistance or address the mental health challenges she was grappling with. 

    It’s crucial to emphasize that placing the responsibility solely on individual HR leaders or supervisors, without adequate training and support, places them in an untenable position to help a person in crisis. 

    Suicide is a crisis and needs to be treated as such. This underscores the importance of mental health first aid training as a proactive measure for building the capacity to respond effectively to such situations. 

    Suicide prevention requires de-stigmatization and mental health support

    When it comes to responding to an employee in crisis, we must go beyond standard operating procedures while ensuring that fundamental steps are still in place. These include:

    • Open communication: Fostering an environment where employees feel safe discussing mental health and suicide without fear of judgment or repercussions is paramount.
    • Addressing stigma: Actively working to combat the stigma associated with mental health by using language that destigmatizes these issues can create a more inclusive workplace.
    • Recognition of suicide awareness holidays: Acknowledging days dedicated to suicide awareness can help raise awareness and promote open dialogue.
    • Availability of company resources: Making resources related to suicide prevention readily available, such as hotline numbers and educational materials, can be life-saving.
    • Mental health discussion groups: Encouraging discussion groups where employees can share their experiences and insights can foster understanding and support.
    • Well-being check-ins: Regular check-ins between managers and employees give individuals an opportunity to express their concerns and seek assistance when needed.
    • Comprehensive mental health benefits: Offering comprehensive mental health benefits, including access to therapy and counseling services, is crucial to supporting the mental well-being of employees.

    Furthermore, it can be beneficial when senior employees lead by example, openly discussing mental health and sharing their experiences, including any encounters with suicidal ideation. 

    Encouraging statements like, “It’s okay not to be okay. Suicidal ideation is a spectrum, and regardless of where you are on that spectrum, there are resources available to you,” can provide employees with the courage and confidence to reach out to their manager or HR leaders when they need assistance. 

    This openness can make a significant difference in creating a compassionate and supportive workplace culture.

    Following up, even when it’s uncomfortable

    I manage a small team, and I make it a point to create an open space for team members to share how they’re doing. For example, during meetings, I ask them to rate their personal and professional well-being on a scale of one to five, and encourage them to elaborate on their responses.

    We all have challenging days, and when someone is struggling, it’s crucial to follow up and see if they need resources or professional mental health support.

    Also, trust your instincts. If you notice someone struggling or exhibiting signs of suicidal thoughts or concerning behavioral changes, don’t hesitate to act. It’s common to rationalize people’s behavior and avoid uncomfortable situations, especially when uncertain about how to help. 

    Remember, you don’t need to have all the answers or say the perfect thing. Sometimes, a simple, direct question like, “Hey, are you struggling?” or “Do you need support?” or “Can I help you find resources?” can make a significant difference. It might be the encouragement someone needs to seek help. 

    Here are four ways to support an employee who has lost a loved one to suicide.

    About the Author
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    Jackie Stevens
    Senior Manager, Commercial Sales

    Jackie has built her career in SaaS sales, covering a wide spectrum from high-volume transactions to nurturing long-term client relationships in various industries. Over the past 6 years, she has immersed herself in the employee benefit space, fueled by a deep passion for mental health advocacy. Beyond her professional life, Jackie spends a lot of time outside with her family, friends, boyfriend, and dog Molly. Jackie strives to merge her sales expertise with social impact, working tirelessly to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

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