SUMMARY: How to identify and respond to indications of suicidal behaviour. Evidence-based strategies to inform your policies and procedures.

Being able to recognize and respond to indications that someone is thinking of suicide may help avert a death by suicide. Even when death by suicide occurs, the emotional impact of loss may be buffered by knowing that you tried to help.

Much of what is written about suicide prevention focuses on intervening once someone has become suicidal. Rory O’Connor, in the Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model, suggests that social problem-solving skills, a sense of belonging, and social support can all reduce the likelihood that someone will attempt suicide. For this reason, in addition to the approaches described below, consider using the Team Building activities to improve resilience for employees in your organization.

In its report Informing the Future – Mental Health Indicators for Canada, the Mental Health Commission of Canada states, “Suicide is a preventable cause of death but rates in Canada remain unacceptably high.” The report goes on to share that, “The suicide rate for adults was 13.8 per 100,000 in 2011. The highest rates were observed among males aged 45-49 and 50- 54 (26.6 per 100,000 and 25.7 per 100,000 respectively.” (Source: Statistics Canada CANSIM Table 102-0551)

These higher numbers, related to individuals in their primary working years, suggests a need to address the issue of suicide and suicide prevention in workplaces.

Organizational approaches

As part of an overall workplace psychological health and safety strategy, consider the following:

  • Be aware of individual risk factors
    While suicide cannot always be prevented, an understanding of factors that may increase risk is helpful. The following factors can increase an individual's risk of suicide:
    • Prior suicide attempts
    • Suicide by someone close
    • Problematic substance use
    • Mental illnesses such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, etc.
    • Access to lethal drugs, weapons or other means
    • Stigma that discourages employees from asking for help
    • Feelings of isolation due to actual or perceived discrimination related to race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, etc.
    • Implement a comprehensive Psychological Health and Safety Management System to help improve overall workplace culture and resolve issues more effectively.
    • Eliminate stigma related to mental health issues so that all employees feel safe asking for help. See Framework to Help Eliminate Stigma.
    • Develop an inclusive workplace environment where diversity is welcomed, supported and protected for all employees.
    • Avoid marginalizing people most in need of support such as those who are in crisis, undergoing difficult life changes, or experiencing mental health issues.
  • Ensure your Employee and Family Assistance Program (EAP) provides appropriate support and counseling services to those who may have thoughts of suicide.
  • Ensure employees are aware of confidential EAP or community services that are available to help them.

Provide training

Managers and union representatives may be in a position to observe changes in behaviour or hear from co-workers that someone appears to be having difficulties.

  • Be prepared by offering suicide intervention training to appropriate people in your workplace, such as the program offered through Living Works Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program. When considering candidates for suicide intervention training, look at those who are known to be good, supportive listeners outside of their roles as managers or union representatives.
  • Provide awareness training to all managers and union representatives, such as that offered through Living Works SafeTALK program.
  • Increase interpersonal and social competency through training in stress management and coping skills to help people deal more effectively with problems. See Managing Emotions.
  • Raise awareness of organizational and community supports including expertise through your human resources department, crisis support lines, mental health agencies, or EAP to help managers and union representatives make appropriate referrals.
  • Subscribe to free Working Through It weekly emails to improve understanding of effective coping strategies for a variety of mental health concerns.
  • Resolve workplace issues quickly and effectively to reduce feelings of hopelessness. See Managing Conflict.

See also The Role of Managers in Preventing Suicide in the Workplace.

Educate and support employees

The following are some ideas to increase employee awareness and to support those who may be struggling:

  • Provide suicide prevention education to employees such as Living Works SafeTALK program.
  • Provide education to help recognize mental health problems, including warning signs of suicide. See Suicide Prevention: How to Help Someone who is Suicidal.
  • Promote awareness that many deaths by suicides are preventable. Provide facts about suicide, risk factors and prevention approaches.
  • Ensure employees understand that they are not required to intervene or put themselves at risk if they are ever in the position of responding to a situation of a potential suicide.
  • Expand awareness of mental illness and addiction.
  • Help reduce stigma associated with race, gender, disability and sexual orientation, mental illness, substance use disorder, and suicide.
  • Encourage help-seeking behaviours for such problems
  • Create a caring work environment in which co-workers support each other. See The Role of Co-workers in Preventing Suicide in the Workplace.
  • Promote listening and interpersonal skills to help individuals improve their relationships.
  • Refer employees to Working Through It, which provides real-life, video-based stories of individuals who have worked through serious mental health issues.

See also Suicide Response for approaches that consider the impact on co-workers of a suicide attempt or death by suicide.

Additional Resources

International Handbook of Suicide Prevention: Research, Policy and Practice (available for purchase only)

Handbook showcases the most up-to-date research, policy and practice in suicide prevention. Contributors to this edited volume – many of the world's leading authorities on suicidal behaviour – address the key issues of why people attempt suicide, the most promising interventions, treatments and care for those at risk, and the major international challenges in suicide prevention. Edited by: Rory C. O'Connor, Stephen Platt and Jacki Gordon, 2011.