How to Help Employees Who Are Depressed or Suicidal

Dr. Lorna M. Breen, a top ER doctor who treated virus patients in a Manhattan hospital, recently died by suicide. According to her father, her job treating Coronavirus patients in an overwhelming wave killed her.

During this pandemic, your own employees may be experiencing similar stress, anxiety, and even severe depression. Of course, other causes lead to similar outcomes: My ex-husband suffered from severe depression as a result of childhood abuse. My brother attempted suicide after getting a stage 4 cancer diagnosis—a disease that eventually took his life at age 57. Sheree, a friend of mine and consultant to public schools, is severely depressed because a medical mistake resulted in permanent damage to her eyesight—while her husband’s entrepreneurial business is failing due to a loss of large commercial clients during the pandemic.

Psychiatrists predict that the emotional consequences of all these situations can be catastrophic for years to come.

As an HR leader, you are the caretaker of the organization’s culture—as well as the go-to person for those in distress who need a listening ear and for bosses who recognize a team member’s performance has tanked.

Here’s how to communicate your concern to those coworkers and their supervisors.

Be alert to the signs of depression and suicide

Laura Stack woke with a start. 1:03 AM. Thursday, November 20, 2019. She reached to pick up the buzzing phone, fully expecting to see her Johnny’s name on the screen again. Instead, it said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The voice on the other end said, “Hello, ma’am, this is (officer name) with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. I’m at your front door; please come down.”

Slightly irritated, Laura asked, “Do you have Johnny with you again?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry—I do not.”

Laura rolled over, shook her husband, John, awake and whispered loudly, “The police are at the door. It’s Johnny.” They threw on robes, hurried downstairs, and opened the door.

“Mr. and Mrs. Stack, may we come in?” the woman standing behind the uniformed sheriff asked. “I’m with the coroner’s office. I’m so sorry to tell you that your son is deceased.”

Laura stared at her for a millisecond, not comprehending what she’d heard. “Deceased? What do you mean, deceased?”

As a result of his earlier experimenting with drugs, Johnny developed schizophrenia. He suffered from delusions. He heard voices telling him that the mob was after him, that his college was an FBI building and the FBI thought he was a terrorist. Based on his journals found after his death, the voices were telling him to end his life. So on November 20, 2019, he died by suicide.

As soon as a state in America legalizes marijuana, the drug dealers head to the middle schools and high schools. Buying pot becomes as easy as getting a hamburger in the drive-thru. Johnny started experimenting his freshman year when he was 14 years old. As he became older, he tried other forms and eventually settled on “dabbing,” the term for inhaling the vapors from wax, a high-potency chemical form of marijuana with 80 percent or higher THC (the element in marijuana that causes the “high”).

Like Johnny, addicted or mentally ill employees later join organizations such as yours, where they may or may not experience later episodes of mental illness.

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What are the signs of suicide?

  • Roller-coaster emotions and statements
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, coworkers
  • The desire and verbalization to draw closer to God or a Higher Power
  • Extreme fatigue, punctuality problems, unexplained absences—or real or imagined illnesses
  • Attempts to making amends with family, friends, and coworkers. (Examples: Texting or calling long-ignored friends, talking over former, fun times, apologizing for past real or imagined wrongs.)
  • Sudden drastic changes—often an urgency to leave or escape
  • Final arrangements for death—giving away prized possessions or secrets

More Resources on signs for suicide and info on schizophrenia and suicide are available from WebMD and AFSP.

Investigate the effects of drugs on the brain

 Your organization may offer courses on drug addiction—the hard drugs. The problem? Some consider marijuana “safe.” But Johnny found out otherwise. His poisonous “dabbing” choice wrecks the brain—particularly the brains of teens and young adults. Because of the high concentration of THC, dabs can cause psychotic, paranoia, or delusional episodes like Johnny suffered.

You’ll find additional resources about dabbing, TCH, and related mental illnesses here:

Probe for problems

Communicate compassion to those employees under stress and depressed by giving them an opportunity to talk through their situation. Ask, “How are you feeling lately?” “How’s life treating you these days?” “How’s your job going?” “How can we help?” Just simply make the attempt to reach out when you suspect an employee is struggling.

Take action

Sometimes the employee knows and can verbalize what they need to break through. At other times, they do not. In those situations, you’ll need to investigate to provide them with the resources (counselors, education) and/or recommendations about dealing with their depression (whatever the cause).

In addition to your personal efforts, encourage leaders in your organization to volunteer, donate, or educate others alongside the many nonprofits whose mission is to support the drug-addicted or the mentally ill. For example, Laura and John Stack have founded a nonprofit to do just that:  To educate teens, family members, and employers about the dangers of dabbing high-potency marijuana extracts and the impact on adolescent brain formation, mental health, and suicide.

Theirs, as well as other related nonprofits, aim to educate, spread the word, and save lives. When you have the opportunity, join their efforts to do the same.

Editor’s note: If you are in crisis, please contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor right away.

Dianna Booher is the bestselling author of 49 books, published in 62 foreign-language editions. She helps organizations to communicate clearly and leaders to expand their influence by a strong executive presence — and often by their own published book. Her latest books include Faster, Fewer, Better EmailsCommunicate Like a Leader; What MORE Can I Say?; Creating Personal Presence; and Communicate With Confidence. National Media such as Good Morning America, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, FOX, CNN, NPR, and Entrepreneur have interviewed her for opinions on workplace communication issues.  @DiannaBooher  817-283-2333