Suicide Prevention At Work Isn’t Working: Companies Need To Stop Waiting For A Crisis

Bernie Wong | Senior Associate, Mind Share Partners

This article was originally published on Forbes. Go here to read more of Mind Share Partners' Forbes features.

James had been working in the financial industry for decades at prominent, reputable banks. He was friendly, outgoing, magnanimous and generous. The first time we met, he invited me to have lunch near his hometown. James and I worked together for a year before he left in pursuit of other ventures in 2015. 

In the winter of 2016, I reached out to James, sending a bottle of wine and best wishes for the New Year. A few weeks later, he hadn’t responded, which wasn’t typical of him. Then, I heard from a colleague that James had died by suicide that holiday season.

The news of James’s death spread. My colleagues and I learned from his brother that James had been managing depression for decades. We would never have known given how highly competent and engaged he was. But our industry is high-stress and relatively unforgiving—people would never share if things weren’t going well.

In the weeks following James’ suicide, my colleagues’ responses varied: from seeing his depression as a weakness, to insisting he wasn’t depressed at all, to total avoidance, to sympathy and understanding in recognizing depression as a real issue. Every response, however, happened behind closed doors. 

To prevent crises like James’s or those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade this World Suicide Prevention Day (or Suicide Prevention Awareness Day), having a crisis management plan in place is important, but a crisis plan alone is like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. Some estimates say that up to 87% of suicide victims had been previously diagnosed with a mental health condition. However, it takes 10 years on average from when a person first experiences symptoms of a mental health condition to when they seek care—a 10-year window for prevention. What’s more, research shows that employees are afraid to talk about mental health at work—especially with senior leaders and HR

To truly prevent suicide, workplaces need to understand their impact on mental health and address both stigma and preventative approaches before they reach crisis territory. 

Only Talking About Mental Health In The Context Of Suicide Is Misleading And Ultimately Ineffective

When workplaces only talk about mental health in the context of suicide, they further stigmatize mental health by reinforcing an association between mental health challenges and suicide. In reality, up to 80% of people can live symptom-free with the right support and treatment, and new research shows that certain mental health conditions are just as prevalent in high-performers and entrepreneurs—like James.