Say Something: The Losses We Can't Understand and Don't Discuss

The brother of a colleague. My mother-in-law’s father. A neighbor’s college sophomore. A close friend’s mother. It’s not just celebrities dying by suicide.

The brother of a colleague. My mother-in-law’s father. A neighbor’s college sophomore. A close friend’s mother. It’s not just celebrities dying by suicide.

We’re talking about Kate and Anthony, and we talked about Robin Williams. Yet in every case I know personally, the cause of death is not openly discussed.

While carefully not addressing this problem, we are missing opportunities to prevent it. By guarding privacy, we are perpetuating the stigma surrounding death by suicide.

The simple reason suicide has been neglected for so long is stigma. It is a human behavior that terrifies most people. Suicide is wrongly seen as a character or moral flaw – or even a sinful act. It is viewed as something shameful that must be hidden.

NYT 6/11/18

As the 10th leading cause of death, suicide is a public health problem that deserves greater attention and research focus. While warning signs and risk factors can be described, it remains unclear how to predict or prevent suicides. Only about .5 percent of the nearly 10 million adults reporting serious thoughts of suicide each year complete the act according to NIH and SAMHSA. And in 80 percent of the 1.3 million attempts each year, no one was told in advance.


“The interior drama that turns self-destruction into an idea, then an attractive choice, and finally a necessary solution is rarely evident to survivors.”  (NYT 6/7/18)


What Can Employers and Employees Do?

  • Combat stigma by sharing struggles with mental health conditions openly, partnering with organizations that promote openness and caring about mental health (e.g., Stamp Out Stigma, Working Minds, Mental Health First Aid) 
  • Promote a culture of caring by training managers and peers to recognize stress and burnout and connecting employees to EAP and other resources.  Ensure that employees and managers feel empowered to ask colleagues if they are okay and, based on the response, probe for intent to self-harm; it’s important not to place privacy concerns above safety.
  • Get educated about evidence-based approaches to substance use disorder (addiction) treatment 
  • Understand that not all suicides can be prevented, however, contagion can be a factor (NYT 6/8/18)
  • Embrace emerging approaches to prevention, such as a new mobile app designed to support people with a history of suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviors.
  • Advocate for parity: as we heard from Patrick Kennedy in his Business Health Agenda keynote in April, as a nation we’re falling short when it comes to implementing the mental health parity law enacted more than 10 years ago.

We know that suicide stems from feelings that “I am not enough” and is more common in those struggling with depression or other mental illness, substance abuse and impulsivity, loss or fear of loss (relationship or financial loss, terminal illness), hopelessness and feeling worthless.

While no silver bullet exists, we can all do more to combat suicide. Speaking about non-celebrity as well as celebrity deaths, reaching out to those in distress, creating and maintaining social and community connectedness, advocating for treatment, investing in research and education, and advocating for parity will better protect our colleagues, friends and family members.