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» Suicide Prevention Awareness: John’s Story

September 20, 2022

Behavioral Health, DEI, Digital Health, Employee Benefits, Health Equity, Human Resources, Research, Self-Funding, Wellness

** Trigger Warning for Suicide. Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline if you need to talk with someone **

This year marked 21 years since my dad was set to finally coach my Little League team for the first time. It also marks 21 years since he died by suicide.

It was March 2001, and my dad was really busy as a physician and surgeon for the University of California San Diego. My mom likes to say that he was doing rounds every morning at 6:30 am except for Sundays, when he did rounds at 7:30 am. His job was incredibly demanding, but he did amazing things for patients and saved people who suffered some truly insane injuries.

I learned a lot by seeing the approach he took to care and what treatment meant for his patients. Seeing burn patients deal with the aftermath of their surgeries made me realize that at times, surviving a traumatic experience and continuing to live can be harder than dying.

So he was super busy. I got it, as much as a 10-year-old could.

But despite his workload and busyness, he made time to play sports with me. It was a release from work for him and it was time with my dad for me. Win-win. And while I loved throwing a bucket of old baseballs in the car and catching fly balls from him until it got dark, he had never been able to commit to coaching a season of Little League.

But in 2001, he said he’d do it. He was finally going to coach my team along with another dad whose family we were close with.

Now if you didn’t play sports growing up, this might not mean much to you. Having your parent coach your team was a rite of passage for any kid playing sports. For the kids who played for their dads, they’d get to strategize about the game all week, play for them on gameday, then get in the car and dissect the whole game the entire way home.

They would be over the shared experience. And I was so excited about all of that.

But then a few weeks before the season began, my sister and I were pulled out of class and came home to learn what happened – my dad had died by suicide.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but he’d suffered from chronic depression nearly his entire adult life. He had recently lost a few patients and really struggled to get the help he needed in the aftermath. Medicine in particular has a lot of stigma around mental health and depression and carries with it some terrible statistics around physicians and suicide.

I frankly wasn’t equipped to get it at the time. Who would be at 10 years old? But as I grew up, I realized I had survived and come through the other end of a terrible experience. This experience equipped me to talk about a very taboo and stigmatized subject in a way that most people are still really uncomfortable discussing.

But despite that, this stuff still really sucks and is really hard to deal with. I personally experienced some depression in my late 20s and worked with a therapist. It helped. Therapy works. But the stigma and the hurdles, both financial and structural, around getting help are brutal.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and I wanted to devote this week’s newsletter to a few stories around suicide and mental health, along with some links I hope you find helpful.

Why I Care about Suicide Prevention and Mental Health

You’ve probably seen me talking about suicide prevention and mental & behavioral health, whether that’s here on LinkedInYouTube, or as a guest speaker at events like the Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech conference.

I do this because our society really sucks at creating space for this kind of topic. We have historically been really bad at opening up, talking about things going on, and getting help.

And on top of that, our work as benefits consultants means we have the opportunity to lessen the financial and structural barriers to employees receiving the help they need. It’s our job to help companies deliver affordable and accessible healthcare to their employees. This includes mental health.

Part of my background is that I’ve volunteered with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a great organization with some really amazing people like Christine Yu Moutier and Doreen Marshall.

Professionally, I look for ways to enhance benefits through EAPs like Lyra, Ginger, and Spring Health, and health plan design like free annual mental health therapy visits. Given the comorbidities between depression and anxiety and almost every chronic medical condition, I think it makes a ton of sense to invest in preventative mental health care at the company level for your employees.

(FYI those links take you to research that ties depression and anxiety to diabetes, obesity, chronic kidney disease, and heart disease. That’s not an exhaustive list, by any means.)

I also direct groups to Workplace Suicide Prevention, a great resource that’s a team effort between AFSP and United Suicide Survivors International.

So here are some links and stories for you to review this Suicide Prevention Awareness Month as you seek greater understanding and awareness around suicide prevention and delivering solutions in the workplace and at home.

How to Spot Suicidal Behaviors in the Workplace

This article from SHRM is a good starting point for spotting signs of suicidal ideation in the workplace and how to approach coworkers. It also touches on strategies for supporting remote employees, as FT remote workers report higher levels of burnout than other workers.

The key as I see it after reading article after article on this topic is leading with empathy and awareness. Start a conversation by asking how someone is doing rather than starting with the result of their symptoms such as a drop in productivity.

But in order to do this, management at your company has to create a Culture of Psychological Safety so people trust that they can bring up issues and be heard.

From Guardian: Identify and Address Employee Stress

91 percent of employees said that unmanageable amounts of stress have negatively impacted their quality of work. Guardian Life has a neat partnership with Spring Health for employers looking to bring a resource to their teams.

Teens Approach Educators More than Parents with Mental Health Concerns

“You can talk to me” doesn’t always lead to child-parent discussions of mental health symptoms, according to CVS and Morning Consult. But to address the national youth mental health crisis, it is paramount that students trust both parents and educators.

Some stats about the parent-educator disconnect on student mental health:

  • Educators (76%) are more often concerned about teens’ mental health than parents (43%)
  • Teachers (78%) report that they’ve been approached by a child about a mental or emotional concern more often than parents (58%)
  • Half of parents say they initiate conversations about mental health with their child, compared to less than a quarter of educators (22%)

A large disconnect between parents and educators lies in how parents perceive family dynamics impacting children’s mental health. 94 percent of educators cite family dynamics and relationships as negatively impacting teens’ mental health, while parents believe academics, self-esteem, and bullying have a greater negative impact.

Educators are also three times more likely to cite issues around gender, race, and sexuality as impacting students’ mental health, compared to just 25 percent of parents.

H/T to Cheryl Matochik for bringing this article to my attention in her newsletter.

College Students at High Risk of Suicide: College Suicide Prevention Resources

This piece on Best Colleges provides some eye-opening statistics about the risk of suicide for college students. Among people ages 15-24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death.

The American College Health Association conducted a 2019 study that found 2 in 3 undergraduates felt overwhelming anxiety within the last 12 months and 14 percent seriously considered suicide. There are certain risk factors present on college campuses that makes suicide a high risk for students, including new social environments, potential loneliness, increase in risk taking behaviors, and increased stress and pressure from academic and social pursuits.

If you’re around college students who exhibit some warning signs such as loneliness, reclusiveness, mood swings, lack of routine, or other signs of personal disruption, here are some questions you can use to connect with them:

“I’ve been concerned about you and wanted to see how you are doing.”

“How can I support you right now?”

“Have you considered getting help?”

“I’m here for you. You are not alone.”

When someone is struggling, it can feel like the whole world is against them. Make it clear that you are with them in an accepting and non-judgemental way. This can create space for them to create a connection with you and lessens their risk for self-harm.

Postpartum Depression in Women and Men

We have a ways to go when it comes to postpartum depression and maternal outcomes for mothers, especially along racial lines. In fact, it’s one of the key areas we focus on in reducing health disparities among groups.

But a related and under-discussed topic is paternal postpartum depression. Check out this SHRM piece on the 8 to 10 percent of fathers who experience symptoms of postpartum depression. It discusses the impact of parental leave and particularly paternity leave. SHRM research in 2019 found that 76 percent of fathers return to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child.

Finally, don’t forget the new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, referenced at the start of this article.

As always, please reach out to me or schedule time to chat with me about anything above that resonated with you. I’m here to help.

Posted by in Behavioral Health, DEI, Digital Health, Employee Benefits, Health Equity, Human Resources, Research, Self-Funding, Wellness