In 730 days of command, this was the longest day.
People sometimes missed morning work roll call, but this was different. For much of the previous year he had suffered from deep depression and crippling anxiety, and we had worked diligently to get him the help he needed. Then one day – for reasons we’ll never fully understand – he decided he was done fighting. We found him later that day.
The hours of this day are lost in a fog. Family review. Grief counseling. The inevitable questions that follow in the aftermath of a suicide. Have we done enough? Could we have done more? Did we miss something – a sign, an indicator, anything? What could we have done differently? But there were no answers.
Almost thirty years later, I still think to this day. I eventually stopped asking those questions, but the memories never faded. They are etched in my consciousness. I see the images of that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
Every suicide is a tragedy. When someone commits suicide, it affects everyone directly related to them, and many more who are not. It touches us deeply, on a level that few events in life can reach. There are a number of factors that can lead to suicide – some that are visible and many that are not – and we often regard its causes as a mystery. But this is often not the case.
A recent psychology today The article aptly noted that “suicide often stems from a deep sense of hopelessness” or worthlessness that stems from an inability to cope with life’s challenges. Suicide is seen as the only solution, the only way to escape the crushing weight of life’s burdens. While depression is a major risk factor in suicides, other factors may play an equally important role. Mental health disorders, family history of suicide, substance abuse and impulsiveness, chronic pain or illness, traumatic stress, loss or fear of loss, and previous suicide attempts can all contribute to the same feeling. of despair. When combined, the risks increase, often exponentially.
No one is immune to suicidal feelings. Suicide rates vary by race, ethnicity, and even geographic location, but suicidal ideation can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age or gender. In the United States, someone commits suicide every 11 minutes. Worldwide, nearly 800,000 people commit suicide every year. The suicide rate for men is twice that of women; among veterans, this rate doubles again.
Suicide presents a unique leadership challenge. It is a constant presence with which most leaders are inevitably confronted at some point, directly or indirectly. Therefore, leaders play an important role in preventing suicide, or at least limiting the impact or presence of risk factors. This is important, because someone does not need to commit suicide for present conditions to cause them to do so. And as leaders, we have a responsibility to turn a blind eye when these conditions exist.
First, we have to recognize risk factors. Some of them are more obvious than others; for those who are less obvious, it is imperative that we lead with empathy and compassion. Consider emotional intelligence. Second, know the warning signs. Active listening is an essential leadership skill, even more so with people at risk of self-harm. Again, emotional intelligence is an absolute necessity. Signs can be subtle, communicated non-verbally. Third, create safe spaces where people can discuss their feelings with privacy and discretion. Trust is key, and when someone knows their leadership truly cares about their well-being, they are more likely to ask for help. Fourth, destigmatize mental health. It’s easy to say that we put the mental health of our employees first, but actions speak louder than words. Encourage people to ask for help when they need it and give them the space and respect to do so without feeling isolated.
Fifth, we must address social dynamics and workplace factors which can affect mental health. Poor working conditions, harassment or bullying, and social isolation can all be contributing factors. Maybe someone is not selected for a promotion or suffers a sudden loss of income. A marriage or relationship could be in crisis. A loved one or close friend dies suddenly. All of these can push someone into a sense of hopelessness, where they see themselves as a burden to others.
Even then, we cannot always prevent someone from committing suicide. Following a suicide, lead with compassion and transparency. Respond quickly, be available to those who need it, and stay flexible. Provide the necessary resources to the people concerned. Give people time to process their grief. And don’t make it worse by burying your head in the sand of denial. Be the leader people need you to be.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text 838255. The Lifeline can also be reached in most areas by dialing 988 and will be available across the United States. on July 16, 2022. Additional resources are also available for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs.