by Molly Rodriguez, RN, MPH, PCC & Kate Taylor, MA, MTBC

We’ve all felt the pain in our hearts upon learning about death by suicide. The effects of suicide linger and leave unanswered questions about the individual and the life they were experiencing. “Mental health professionals agree that people who think about taking their own lives feel trapped by what they perceive as a hopeless situation, feel cut off by life and friendships, and they want to end what they perceive as unbearable pain’ (McHenry County Mental Health Board, 2019). A question many in healthcare ask is “why is death by suicide increasing in the medical profession?” This question may only offer some vague insight.  Perhaps what really matters is to ask, “how can we take action to change the statistics of rising suicide rates among healthcare workers?” f your organization has been affected by suicide this article will share how to identify common mistakes made, ways to recover if suicide strikes your agency, and how to prevent future suicide.

There is no denying that physician suicide rates are at an all-time high, “one doctor commits suicide in the U.S. every day — the highest suicide rate of any profession” Web MD, May 2018). Professionals working in healthcare spend the majority of their life at their place of work and every organization that employees healthcare workers is at risk.  So, it’s time organizations take massive action to prevent suicide.

How to Recover:

Recovery after suicide is one of the most painful loss events a loved one or colleagues will experience. Suicide shifts your work culture. If your organization has experienced suicide there are three key elements that need to take place immediately – support, time and programming.

Immediate support for those closest to the person who passed is mandatory. Support includes well-trained professionals who understand and have experience with suicide. Some organizations will turn to their internal human resources department or mental health staff in an effort to offer a resolution. Internal employees are too close to the scenario and even though well trained it’s recommended a suicide expert offer guidance and services on emotional processing.  

Recovering from suicide is a long hard journey. It might be easy to fall into the assumption that one or two weeks and staff life will go back to normal. Every person processes and recovers from suicide differently. However, systemic healing does not happen until every individual has healed.  System-wide healing can take years.

Putting a recovery program into place is imperative for healthcare organizations Every organization has some strong leaders and few leaders are trained to be with very powerful emotions such as shock, despair, confusion, and anger. These are the emotions your staff will experience, especially those close to the suicide victim. Having a short-term and long-term plan to help your staff work through these feelings with trained professionals is required.

Mistakes Made by Organizations:

Assuming their staff is strong or “will get through this.” Placing the badge on honor on people is what leads to immense pressure and hopelessness in the first place. Never make the judgment that your staff appears to be handling it well. Suicide is extremely hard for people to talk about and emotionally process, there is so much stigma associated. Many people will keep their thoughts and feelings locked away. It’s the organization’s responsibility to offer different outlets to emotionally process.

Assuming they have staff that can provide suicide recovery support. As stated previously, support that is too close to home is not always effective. Staff sharing with internal staff does not offer a safe or therapeutic environment that some people will be seeking. Finding experts in suicide recovery to implement a recovery program is effective.

Not encouraging emotional and mental processing. Healthcare organizations are busy systems, it’s implied, and slowing down during this time is a necessity. Staff will be emotionally overloaded and need a safe space to process their feelings. This might mean some changes in schedules or patient loads have to take place.  

Not pouring into their staff soon enough. After a tragedy its human behavior to look retrospectively what could we have done differently. It’s more important to look at what you can do differently moving forward. Healthcare burnout is real. Find a new approach to pour into your staff’s personal and professional life. Offering your staff the same computerized continuing education programs is not going to cut it.

Pretending it will not change productivity. When a physician resigns from your healthcare system it will cost your organization between $100,000 and $400,000 to replace them. Losing a team member to suicide will shift the productivity of your staff and the community’s perspective of your organization. The average cost of one suicide is  $1,329,553 (Suicide Prevention Resource Center). Don’t pretend it won’t affect your financial bottom line.

How to Prevent Suicide:

Without a doubt, this is the most important part of the article – prevention. Committing as an organization to not lose anyone to suicide is the first step. Allocate the resources to creating a suicide task force and new ways to pour into the lives of your staff. Seek a group of experts that will help you step by step to develop and implement perspectives. Let’s start with the basics:

Understand the signs and some of the known causes of suicide.

  • Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and certain personality disorders
  • Alcohol and other substance use disorders
  • Hopelessness
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Major physical illnesses
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Family history of suicide
  • Job or financial loss
  • Loss of relationship(s)
  • Easy access to lethal means
  • Local clusters of suicide
  • Lack of social support and sense of isolation
  • Stigma associated with asking for help
  • Lack of healthcare, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
  • Cultural and religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Exposure to others who have died by suicide (in real life or via the media and Internet)

Your staff is your most valuable asset.   Therefore, you must commit to continue to pour into them.  Get out of the box and find new and exciting ways for staff to build positive and nurturing relationships. One of the great tragedies today is humans feel lonely, even when they are around other humans. Engaging our staff in new ways –  communicating with each other, promoting self-care and preventing burnout offers a new future for your organization.

At Empower Yourself Coaching we know all human life is valuable and we are committed to reducing suicide rates in healthcare. Our intention here is to encourage new conversations within your organization. To help you as organization leaders in healthcare start the conversation with staff about suicide awareness and prevention.  If you need further assistance or ideas please connect with info@empoweryourselfcoaching.org

References

Shepard, D. S., Gurewich, D., Lwin, A. K., Reed, G. A., Jr., & Silverman, M. M. (2015). Suicide and suicidal attempts in the United States: Costs and policy implications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.

Florence, C., Simon, T., Haegerich, T. Luo, F., & Zhou, C. (2015). Estimated lifetime medical and work-loss costs of fatal injuries – United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 64(38), 1074–1077. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6438a4.htm

Florence, C., Haegerick, T., Simon, T., Zhou, C, and Luo, F. (2015). Estimated lifetime medical and work-loss costs of emergency department-treated nonfatal injuries – United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,64(38), 1077–1082. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6438a5.htm

McHenry County Mental Health Board (2019). QPR Suicide Prevention. www.mchenrycountyqpr.org.

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