Dr. El

With the high-profile deaths this month of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain, the crisis of suicide has been thrust into the spotlight. Suicide deaths in the United States have increased 25% between 1999 and 2016, with an estimated 45,000 occurring per year.

I’ve written about suicide prevention in older adults and protocols for managing suicidal residents before. This column focuses on what organizations can do to address employee suicide.

As I prepared for this article, I realized that we don’t hear much in the industry news outlets about suicide among our staff members. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Research has shown that physicians are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population, and while there is a notable lack of information about the suicide rates for nurses in the US, a report from the UK finds that “for females, the risk of suicide among health professionals was 24% higher than the female national average; this is largely explained by high suicide risk among female nurses.”

A suicide death in the small-town atmosphere of a nursing home can have a devastating ripple effect, deeply affecting other staff members, as well as residents and their families. It can be particularly difficult to absorb a suicide death in an environment where others are struggling to live, despite age and disability and where the job of workers is to keep people alive.

A death by suicide leaves those around the deceased wondering how they might have failed their coworkers and teammates. This feeling can be particularly acute among individuals who pride themselves as excellent caregivers — the kind of people who work in long-term care.

How employers can help

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) points out that it is not only more humane to create an organizational culture of physical and mental health, but it also leads to more productive employees. They suggest a comprehensive approach based on the following three elements to make workplaces more supportive to those who are struggling with depression.

Create a work environment that fosters communication, a sense of belonging and connectedness, and respect. This suggestion dovetails with the mission of many LTC organizations. Providing respectful, high-quality care to elders necessitates that workers respect and collaborate with their teammates. I outlined a number of suggestions in this article on preventing burnout that can enhance the work environment for employees, including increased training and support, the use of employee recognition programs and the development of positive, collaborative activities among workers such as group exercise programs.

Identify and assist employees who may be at risk for suicide. One way to implement this recommendation is to add a section on recognizing suicidal behaviors or statements by coworkers to in-service trainings on resident depression. In addition, establish a protocol for alerting trained team members about concerns regarding peers and identify local resources to which they can be referred, such as to an Employee Assistance Program. Staff training modules and state-specific resources can be found on the SPRC website.

Be prepared to respond to a suicide death. Having a protocol in place prior to a suicide death allows the organization to act quickly and compassionately to address the short- and long-term reactions of LTC community members to the loss. “Postvention” grief counseling and support also reduces the risk of the contagion that sometimes occurs after a suicide.

Research shows that the vast majority of people who attempt suicide (over 90% to 95% in most studies) go on to lead rich lives without further suicide attempts.

Employers can be part of the effort to help suicidal individuals get through their emotional crises and continue to be productive workers, loving family members and valuable contributors to their communities.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with over 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.