In the wake of the pandemic suicides are expected to rise – but help can be provided
10 September is World Suicide Prevention Day. World Suicide Prevention Day is commemorated in order to promote worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. On average, almost 3 000 people commit suicide each day. For every person who completes a suicide, 20 or more may attempt to end their lives.
With isolation being prominent a factor in suicide, there are increasing expectations that the number of suicides in South Africa will increase in light of the wholesale isolation and disconnection brought about by the COVID-19 lockdown. In an article published by Wits University on 8th June 2020, William Gumede, Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand writes, “Record numbers of people will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD cases), the combination of stress, anxiety and depression that develops in some people who have experienced a terrifying event. It is very likely that the incidents of suicides are likely to jump, in a country with already high suicide rates. South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world, with around eight thousand people committing suicide every year, meaning it is the third biggest cause of unnatural death after homicide and unintentional reasons.”
Speaking to Bruce Whitefield on Cape Talk 567’s Money Show, Dr Jason Bantjies, Doctor in the Psychology Department at the University of Stellenbosch said, “It is a complicated business because it requires such an integrated and multi-level approach but it is absolutely possible to prevent suicide.” Employers should be made aware of the impending threat and be assisted in offering supportive resources to employees in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown Health and Wellness initiatives and EAPs can provide employee support for this harmful mental health issue.
Educate and support your employees
Stigma about mental illness can keep people from seeking help and talking about their situation – especially at work. It is important to reassure your employees that mental health problems are real and treatable. Educate your workforce through am honest and open health and wellness programme on mental health that talks about mental illnesses and suicide in the same way you would talk about physical illnesses.
Here are some telltale behaviours that managers and colleagues could witness in the workplace:
- A change in performance
- Exhibiting low morale
- Becoming argumentative
- Increased absenteeism
- Being controlling or demanding
Educate your management and team leaders
Be prepared to provide suicide prevention training to key members of your staff. Managers or team leaders are well positioned to notice if an employee is struggling and to take the first steps in assisting them to get help. They have day-to-day contact with employees and the opportunity to get to know them over time, so they are able to observe changes in employee behaviour, and may see them at critical points in their life.
Gaining an understanding of factors that may increase the risk of suicide is helpful. The following factors can increase an individual’s risk:
- 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 of taking their life
- 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 1
Suspect a colleague is at risk? Take advice from your EAP
Bringing the issue into the open is vital. If you suspect that a colleague is at risk, talk to your EAP. They can coach you on what to say before you approach your co-worker. You can make sure they know, or remind the person that they can speak confidentially with an EAP counsellor.
In their personal lives, colleagues may show warning signs such as:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Those contemplating suicide may be very upfront about it and talk about feeling hopeless, being a burden or feeling trapped. They will say they are in unbearable pain and will talk about killing themselves. 2