For National Suicide Prevention Month, Jillian Goldstein, director of the Counseling and Wellness Center at Gladstone Institutes, explains how we can recognize a mental health crisis in our colleagues and outlines steps we can use to support them.
Observed every September, National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month aims to inform and engage the public about suicide prevention and warning signs of suicide.
What does it mean to experience mental health distress? What does a mental health crisis look like? We often see dramatized portrayals of mental breakdowns in the media that are chaotic and explosive, but in reality, mental health struggles can be a slow and invisible build toward mental health instability, distress, or crisis.
For some, a mental health crisis may start out as day-to-day stress, sleepless nights, feeling worried, irritable, drinking a little more than typical, coming into work late, or withdrawing from others. A person’s mental health—if it goes unmanaged and doesn’t receive support or interventions—can worsen to more significant symptoms like panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, depression, isolation, substance use, and feelings of hopelessness. At a mental health crisis point, one may engage in self harm, experience suicidal thoughts, or attempt suicide.
Acknowledging our own struggles, discussing our mental health with others, or checking in to make sure a loved one or colleague is okay continues to be shrouded in stigma and discomfort. Yet, it’s incredibly important to normalize discussing our mental health, particularly in academia and science. 51 percent of postdocs who responded to a Nature survey are considering leaving science because of mental health concerns related to their work, and 36 percent of PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression.
These data points matter because, as a Gladstone community, we have the ability to change the narrative. We shouldn’t have to deal with our mental health concerns alone.
Instead, what if we were encouraged and felt comfortable sharing our distress with each other before it becomes a crisis? What if it was normalized to check in on a colleague if you are concerned with their moods or behaviors? What if talking about mental wellness and stress was as common in a one-on-one meeting as discussing the logistics of a planned experiment?
September 10–16, 2023, is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Week. The theme this year is “Talk Away The Dark.” This theme underscores two important aspects of mental wellness conversations: acknowledging and talking about our own experiences with mental health struggles, and knowing how to talk with our loved ones or colleagues who are struggling.
In order for more people to feel comfortable accessing mental health care and seeking help, we have to begin on an individual level—and it doesn’t have to be complicated.
We just need to start the conversation openly, despite the awkwardness or reservations that may arise. For example, perhaps you’ve noticed a colleague who’s been coming to work late and talking about their high stress levels. They might mention they’re not getting enough sleep, having a hard time concentrating, or maybe they seem more nervous than usual. A simple way to begin a conversation is to ask to speak with them privately where you can reflect and validate their experience. It might go something like this: “Hey, can we chat? I’ve noticed you may be going through a difficult time recently. Are you okay? I’ve been through some stressful situations too and I’m here to listen and talk anytime.”
You can reduce the risk of a crisis or suicide simply by letting someone know you care and that they’re not alone, listening to them, and offering to help. Starting at the individual level, with one-on-one conversations, will begin to shift the mental health narrative at a systemic level, from stigmatized and silenced, toward community discourse and transparency.
If your colleague is displaying more advanced signs of distress and you’re concerned they may be in crisis or at risk of suicide, these five steps are the recommended, evidence-based interventions for suicide prevention.
Ask your colleague directly and privately, “Are you okay? Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself by suicide?” This communicates to your colleague that you’re available to listen and open to having a direct conversation. It’s important you don’t avoid talking about suicidal thoughts: asking someone about their suicidal thoughts has been shown to reduce suicidal ideation. If your colleague is experiencing suicidal thoughts, guide them toward mental health help and support.
Whether you’re speaking with your colleague in person, on the phone, or by text, being there to listen to them can reduce their feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness. Engage them in conversation about who they connect with for support and offer ways you can be there for them. Letting your colleague know there are people who care about them instills a sense of connection, which is a protective factor that can reduce suicidal thoughts.
If your colleague has disclosed they are having suicidal thoughts during your conversation, an important follow-up question is to ask if they have a plan and access to lethal means to attempt suicide. If they do have lethal means (e.g. pills or a firearm), take them to the nearest emergency department if they’re willing to go, or call 911. If your colleague has made a suicide attempt and are injured, call 911. To ensure their continued safety, it’s important to relay to 911 or the emergency medical staff that they have lethal means and a plan. This step means distancing the person from the lethal method they have chosen in their suicide plan. Reducing access to lethal means reduces a person’s likelihood of carrying out a suicide attempt.
If your colleague is expressing suicidal thoughts and has a plan to see them through, it’s vital to connect them to psychiatric help:
If your colleague is not experiencing imminent danger, you can:
Once your colleague is safe and no longer in crisis, the final helpful step is to follow up and check in to see how they’re doing. You can do this through text, a call, a video chat, stopping by to drop off flowers—whatever gesture feels right—to let them know they’re not alone and they are connected. Studies have shown that ongoing connection and outreach are protective factors in reducing suicide.
Create more intentional times to check in and talk about stress and mental health wellness in lab meetings, one-on-one meetings, or informally among colleagues. And seek out help for yourself before your mental health reaches a point of distress or crisis. Collectively, we can positively improve one another’s mental wellness.