Canada: Creating Awareness and Lessening Stigma Can Reduce Work-Related Suicides, Psychologist Says

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By Jeremy Hainsworth

Businesses and human resources departments that have employee “leaders” tell their stories of coping with mental illness can reduce stigma around mental health issues and help avoid workplace-related suicide, Denver's Regis University psychologist Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas told Bloomberg BNA.

When such leaders show it’s OK to have mental health issues and potential suicidal ideations, other employees facing similar problems will know they’re not alone and may seek help, Spencer-Thomas said, noting that the workplace is often the last place of sustained human contact for people who kill themselves.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in July 2016 that rates of suicide in U.S. workplaces were highest in three occupational categories:

  •  farming, fishing, and forestry (84.5 suicides per 100,000 persons);
  •  construction and extraction (53.3) and
  •  installation, maintenance, and repair (47.9).

Rates of suicide varied by sex with higher rates among males than females in all occupational groups.

For men, the highest suicide rates were in farming, fishing, and forestry (90.5 per 100,000); construction and extraction (52.5); and installation, maintenance, and repair (47.5), for women protective service occupations, e.g., law enforcement officers and firefighters (14.1 per 100,000); legal (13.9), and health-care practitioners and technical occupations (13.3).

Rates are similar in Canada.

High-Risk Occupations

Spencer-Thomas and Canadian Mental Health Association officials agree that people in workplaces with access to lethal means to kill themselves such as firearms or medication are of special concern, and occupations where people face lethal risk merit particular attention. These latter include the military, resource extraction, construction and some first responder fields.

“What brave people bring with them is less fear of life and death,” Spencer-Thomas said. “It’s less of a jump for them to consider their own death. They have a capacity to death by their own hand.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Dammy Albach told Bloomberg BNA that doctors, nurses and dentists are also occupations of concern due to high stress and because these individuals have access to lethal drugs for suicide.

Caring as a Core Value

“Suicide is the result of a whole number of contributing factors,” Albach said. “Suicide prevention is about lessening the impact of those factors.”

Caring about people should be a core value for an organization, Spencer-Thomas said.

“We need to be out front to say mental health and suicide prevention are company priorities,” Spencer-Thomas said, and having high-level employees able to tell their stories of survival over mental health challenges can be key.

Without such leaders, suffering employees may fear losing their jobs if they ask for help.

Employers Must Be ‘Active'

There can also be legal liability for employers.

There is a growing body of case law in Canada about the duty of employers to inquire when mental health problems appear, CHMA’s director of community engagement Julia Kaisla told Bloomberg BNA.

Employers “actively need to ask questions about what's going on,” she said.

Warning signs of an employee’s potential suicide can include apathy, high-risk behavior, changes in mood and isolating behavior, Albach said.

“We’re also concerned when someone just seems to be numb,” Albach said.

The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace suggests a number of suicide risk factors to watch for:

  •  prior suicide attempts;
  •  the suicide of someone close, including co-workers;
  •  addiction and substance abuse;
  •  mental illness such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorder;
  •  access to lethal drugs, weapons or other means;
  •  stigma that discourages employees from asking for help and
  •  feelings of isolation due to actual or perceived discrimination related (for example) to race, sexual orientation, disability or gender.

What Can Organizations Do?

Changing the workplace culture to make it more personal can also encourage employees to ask for help, Kaisla said: “This is an opportunity to lessen stigma [and create] an internal support system where people can go and ask for help.”

There are also outside resources available.

The CMHA provides training for employees on how to respond to suicide, Albach said. The safeTALK workshop provides tools to help recognize a person who might be at risk and help connect him or her with life-saving community supports and resources, while the ASIST workshop provides training in suicide intervention and personal safety planning.

Albach emphasizes that such training “needs to be for everyone, not just a specialized group.”

Workplace regulators are also becoming more proactive in promoting positive mental health as a core value.

“WorkSafeBC is taking steps to lessen the impacts of workplace stress, workplace mental health and the reduction of stigmatization of mental health issues that could lead to suicide,” spokeswoman Trish Knight Chernecki of the British Columbia regulator told Bloomberg BNA. WorkSafeBC coordinates trauma counselling for workers and employers who have been through a potentially distressing workplace incident, operates a 24/7 crisis line for injured workers and their families to ensure access to professional help, has a team of contracted social workers to support injured workers and their families experiencing a mental health crisis and operates a multi-disciplinary mental health clinic.

In addition, many labor unions are training shop stewards to support workers in distress and are helping to break down the stigma by building social support, Kaisla said, and the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention makes the key point that workplaces are communities and can play a critical role in preventing suicides and promoting good mental health.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com

For More Information

Additional information is available at the following websites: Working Minds: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace , the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas's blog.

For more information on Canadian HR law and regulation, see the Canada primer.

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