Preventing suicide by cultivating meaning at work

I chose to write this blog post because September is Suicide Prevention Month and the topic is important to me because I am an attempt survivor myself.

You may be thinking, Suicide, really? That’s a tough topic for a wellness blog. How is suicide a worksite wellness topic? I would ask the opposite question. How is it not?

Suicide happens and when it does, it is devastating to everyone — family, friends, co-workers, and possibly clients or patients. With most of us spending more time at work than at home, the worksite is an ideal place to help prevent suicide.

In this post, I will share my story as a frame of reference, share a different perspective about what we can do to prevent suicide, and provide you with tips and resources.

My story: “I love you anyway”

Over a decade ago, I was working in wellness but didn’t feel good enough to be in the field. I looked at all the health and lifestyle behavior rules that the field focuses on — weight, fitness, nutrition, sleep, alcohol, and so on. While medically I was well, I was not engaging in lifestyle behaviors as well as I could have or should have been, especially being the wellness educator. After all, I was supposed to be the perfect one, or so I thought.

With our field and culture’s focus on weight, I decided to lose weight. That would make me feel better about myself. But my focus turned into a death spiral. I engaged in eating disorder behaviors. I starved and threw up. I lost 20 pounds in two months. I was physically and mentally drained.

Adding insult to injury, while I did lose weight, I knew that I did so in an unhealthy fashion and so I felt like I was a failure and a fraud. I was a wellness educator but not practicing what I preach. While I looked thin, I was not healthy.

I felt like I wasn’t good enough for my profession. This feeling of not good enough spiraled. I quickly felt like I wasn’t good enough for anything and everything — professionally and also as a wife, mother, family member, friend, member of society, and person. I also knew that I was a mess and I feared that my mess was burdensome. I didn’t want to be a burden to my family.

One day, I felt exhausted and hopeless. I couldn’t do this anymore. I took all the pills in the house. I must not have wanted to die because in my fog, I told my husband what I did and he called 911. Miraculously, they saved me. I didn’t die. I lived.

Back at home recovering, I questioned my life. I knew I wasn’t good enough compared to all the societal standards. I surely wasn’t a good enough role model for my profession. So, why was I here?

I then imagined talking to God, if there is a God, and imagined him saying, “I love you.” And I balked, saying, “I’m not worthy of your love.” And he said, “I love you.” And I said, “But I ….” and I listed all the ways I was not good enough. And he said, “I love you anyway.”

I then thought of a flower, and that flower saying to the sun, “Don’t shine on me, I don’t deserve it.” I thought of how silly that sounded. Every flower deserves the sun because it’s alive. I then realized this analogy was me. I was the flower, and I deserved life and love because I was alive — that’s it. I didn’t need to earn it by being good enough according to standards, even if those standards were research-based. It was at this moment I decided to let go of all the standards and just live. But what was living?

I asked myself: “What am I good for? What can I offer anyone?” After some silence, I thought to myself, “Well, I can help people, even if I can’t help myself. I can teach them what I know. And I can love them.” I finally felt a tiny sense of meaning, and that shred of meaning got me back to living life one step at a time. I didn’t know what life was about in the long run, but I knew that for the time being, I could help people. So, that became my purpose.

Suicide and meaning

My story is unique, as all stories are, but it has common elements with others. With many suicidal individuals, no matter the circumstances, there is a sense of not being good enough, a feeling of not being worthy or valuable to others (and possibly burdensome), and a lack of meaning or sense of purpose.

So, I ask you: What can we do to help others who are feeling suicidal? Is it only to refer them to medical and mental health help? Or is there more we can do? I think the answer is yes, we can do more, and I think it has to do with helping them find or create meaning in their lives, even if that is in micro-doses.

Humans are oriented toward meaning and purpose. We need to feel that we have a reason to live — a reason to be here — and it doesn’t have to be huge or lifelong. It can be created moment by moment.

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, said, “Meaning makes a great many things endurable — perhaps everything.” Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and psychiatrist who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, explained that in the concentration camps those who survived had or continued to create meaning. A few of his quotes:

  • “The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing.”
  • “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
  • “A man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
  • “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
  • “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”

Work and meaning

So, how does meaning play out at work?

Many of us attach work directly to our sense of meaning — our title, skillset, and our sense of service. When we lack a sense of meaning, we tend to languish. Even if our job seems menial, if we find meaning in it, if we feel like we are helping, and if we feel a sense of belonging with others, we sustain.

However, this sense of meaning does not only come from ourselves but is highly influenced by how other people treat us. We need to feel like we are seen, heard, valued, wanted, and appreciated.

Stated simply, we need to feel noticed. We need to feel cared about. We need to feel part of the team. We need to feel like our part matters, no matter how small it is.

Fostering meaning

To foster meaning, we can help people feel noticed. We can do simple things like:

  • Smile or say “hello” to people as you walk by them;
  • Stop by someone’s office or cube just to say “hi”;
  • Send someone an e-mail to check in;
  • Ask someone to coffee or lunch to connect;
  • Ask about their views, interests, and ideas;
  • Ask them about their work;
  • Ask them for help, advice, or feedback, especially if it’s in their area of expertise;
  • Listen with openness, interest, compassion, and gratefulness;
  • Tell them what you appreciate or enjoy about them;
  • Say “thank you” when they say or do something helpful;
  • Say “good job” if they do something well;
  • Say “congratulations” if they accomplish something; and
  • If you are a manager/supervisor, tell them what they are doing well, and write their strengths and accomplishments into their reviews.



Signs of suicidal thoughts

Now, you may be thinking: All of these ideas are great, but what if someone is struggling and we don’t know that they are suicidal; are there signs?

If someone is suicidal, often they hide it. Usually when someone takes his or her own life, others are shocked, but sometimes there are subtle signs:

  • Talking about being trapped or overwhelmed;
  • Talking about being depressed or feeling hopeless;
  • Talking about not being good enough;
  • Talking about being unloved or unlovable;
  • Talking about wanting to escape or die;
  • Saying things like “I can’t do this anymore”;
  • Acting anxious or upset or behaving erratically;
  • Acting unusually quiet, distant, or isolating themselves;
  • Using lifestyle behaviors in excess for coping (e.g., alcohol, drugs, eating, sleeping, etc.);
  • Not showing interest or participating in things they usually enjoy; and
  • Giving personal items away to others.

What you can do

If you are concerned about someone, the best thing you can do is to privately talk with them and be direct. Tell them what you have noticed, that you feel concerned, and overtly ask them if they are having thoughts of self-harm. If they do say yes, ask them if they have plans, and if they say yes to that, it’s imperative that you call 911 to get them help immediately. Or if they say yes, but that they don’t have plans, recommend that they get help and refer them to resources.

Encourage them to call their doctor, a mental health counselor, or the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) if you have one — and give them the number. Encourage them to say that that they have been feeling suicidal when they call in order to fast track an appointment.

Also, give them the two national hotlines for anyone in suicidal crisis and recommend that they enter them into the contacts in their cellphone: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 and Hopeline: Text the word “Hopeline” to 741741.

They may or may not follow through with these resources, but no matter what, you did provide help. If nothing else, you showed them that you noticed them! You showed them that you care! You showed them that they matter!

Suicide prevention campaigns

If you’d like to do more at work to openly talk about suicide prevention, here are some ideas:

  • Do something at your worksite for National Suicide Prevention Month;
  • Promote the Prevent Suicide Wisconsin website for information and resources;
  • Send an e-mail to all staff saying that suicide prevention is important, and you want to provide information and resources to everyone — for themselves and their families — and give them links in the e-mail;
  • Talk to your staff about their role in preventing suicide
  • Post flyers on bulletin boards
    • Here is an example flyer from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    • Ask your employee assistance program (EAP) if they have any flyers
    • Or create your own
  • Have a guest speaker come in to talk about preventing suicide
  • Promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Promote the HOPELINE: Text “Hopeline” to 741741
  • Put links on your employee intranet page or in your newsletter to suicide information
    • How to help yourself, family, kids, parents, friends, and co-workers
  • Promote your employee assistance program (EAP)
  • Remind employees about their mental health treatment benefits through their health insurance plan

For more information about preventing suicide in the workplace, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has put together a page on suicide prevention awareness resources.

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