What to Do If a Co-Worker Is Suicidal

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Suicide can affect anyone

For some years now, it seems that an increasing number of people, when faced with adversity, psychological distress, or despair, are tempted to end their suffering once and for all by turning to suicide.

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Since this can affect anyone, it may happen one day that a co-worker reveals to you that he or she is suicidal.

You may learn that your co-worker is suicidal in one of the following ways: (1) the person tells you directly, (2) You observe signs of psychological distress and/or warning signs that the person is suicidal, or (3) your co-worker is in serious crisis and threatens to attempt suicide soon. Each of the above situations calls for a specific approach.

If your co-worker tells you directly

If a co-worker tells you they are having suicidal thoughts or contemplating suicide, the best thing to do is to reflect back to them that if they are having these thoughts, they must be feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and hopeless about finding a solution to their problems.
It’s very important never to ridicule the person, make them feel guilty, or try to reason with them. Their pain and distress must be heard, so the only way to soothe some of their pain and get them to accept help is to reflect their feelings back to them so they feel understood. It’s also important to tell them that you understand their distress and that today, at this moment in time, they see suicide as the only solution to their problems. Then you should tell them firmly that they need help, and encourage them to get it. At this point you need to make sure that they immediately speak with an counsellor. You can tell them to call a counsellor while they are with you; or, if you need to be even more direct, you can make the call yourself, ask to speak to a counsellor, and pass them the telephone. If, despite your encouragement, your co-worker does not make the call or refuses help, or if they tell you they are going to attempt suicide soon and resists your attempts to get them help, you should immediately contact either your Employee Family Assistance Program or a counsellor to get expert advice.

If you notice signs of emotional distress

It may be that you suspect a co-worker is suicidal because they are clearly not themselves. The most common signs of emotional distress are when a co-worker:

  • Withdraws, or conversely, is much more sociable than usual.
  • Talks much more or much less than usual, especially about their difficult situation and its consequences for themselves and those close to them.
  • Is experiencing a difficult situation but seems “above it all,” as if they are not in touch with reality.
  • Seems overcome with sadness (ruminates, cries, seems “elsewhere”), or in deep despair.
  • Complains much more than usual.
  • Looks haggard, seems to be in a daze.
  • Is more irritable than usual.
  • Acts more aggressive than usual for no reason, or out of proportion to the situation.
  • Often talks about how difficult their situation is, how they can’t see any way of improving it, how there’s no way out.

The warning signs that a co-worker is contemplating suicide are when they:

  • Makes direct or indirect references to the fact that they have found a solution to their problems, and that soon everything will be settled or they won’t be bothering anyone any more, or that other people’s problems will soon be settled.
  • Talks directly or indirectly about suicidal thoughts (they may even describe how they will do it, when they will do it, etc.).
  • Suddenly seems happier and more carefree, after having gone through a period of deep despair.
  • Is suddenly extremely generous with everyone, paying off their debts (big and small) and giving away their possessions (including things of great value) to friends and co-workers.

If you notice any of these signs, try to “open the door” by sitting with your co-worker, telling them openly the signs you’ve observed, and asking if there’s anything you can do to help them.

If they open up to you, use the strategies described in the first scenario above. If they don’t open up to you, raise the subject of suicide with them directly by sharing your observations. Tell them that you’re concerned, and that if they feel suicidal, help is available.

If you think that someone is about to attempt suicide soon

Another possible (though rare) scenario is a colleague who is about to attempt suicide very soon. They have a method of doing it right there or are threatening to do it now (e.g. has a weapon, is standing near an electrical panel to electrocute themselves, is threatening to jump off a platform or from the roof of the building, or calls you from their car or home and tells you they have swallowed poison or is about to do something irreversible). The only thing you can do in these situations is to talk to your co-worker, tell them you understand how much they must be suffering, and get them to talk about their suffering, their distress, their problems. If possible, ask other co-workers for help. Call 911 (if available in your area) or the police, explain the situation, and ask for immediate assistance. If you can’t call yourself, get someone else to call immediately.

If you’re near the suicidal person, keep a good distance from them. If they are armed, don’t approach them unless they put down their weapon, move far enough away from it, and give permission to approach them. Never try to restrain someone who is threatening to jump or kill themselves in a violent manner, because you could get seriously injured or killed. When emergency workers arrive, let them take charge of the situation. If you were the person to whom the suicidal co-worker was talking, don’t leave the scene until you’re told to do so (the suicidal person may want to continue talking to you because they trust you). After this type of incident, contact a counsellor to talk about it. A counsellor can help you express your feelings, make sense of your experience, and process your reactions.