Suicide is a leading cause of preventable death, even without a pandemic to cope with. And six months into COVID-19, we are seeing the overwhelming toll the crisis is taking on people’s behavioral health: substance use and suicide deaths have increased. People are isolated, many without their usual support networks or self-care resources, and with added stressors from childcare to the mental encroachment of working from home. And widespread layoffs mean that people are struggling to make financial ends meet.
Talk about it: mental health is health
We often refer to mental or behavioral health as if it is separate from the rest of our health. But there is no health without mental health! The stigma and discrimination around mental illness makes it hard to talk about, and hard to ask for help.
With one in five people dealing with a mental health condition, these health challenges are common—in fact, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. And the stigma associated with these challenges puts lives at risk. The more we can create a culture where it’s ok to talk about mental health, the better off our overall health will be.
Avoid stigmatizing language
Terms like “crazy” and “psycho” are part of a long history of demeaning people with mental health conditions. They’re often used to convey a lack of trust in someone, a way to undermine their perspective—and these terms are prolific slang in our culture. People also slip into using mental health diagnoses as adjectives (“the weather is so bipolar today” or “I love to organize my pens by color, I’m so OCD”) which makes light of illnesses that profoundly impact many people around the world. Language matters, and using words like these continue to add to the stigma.
Address the ways that your policies do (or don’t) support mental health
At a minimum, nonprofit employers should offer health insurance that adequately provides for mental health services, and make sure they have paid sick leave for employees. These policies should be explicit and direct in their inclusion of behavioral health (which encompasses both mental health and substance use disorders) and cover things like prevention and ongoing care. Make sure your policies around reasonable accommodations are part of your employee manual too—they should be as easy to find as your list of paid holidays for staff.
Create an office culture that values people first
Creating a healthy culture where balance is valued, staff are treated as though they have a personal life that matters, and the martyrdom of overwork isn’t promoted is already a challenge for many offices. Now, nonprofit staff feel this pressure to perform more than ever as communities face extraordinary hardships and they are called to serve in new ways as new needs arise.
In times like these, people rise to the challenge. And because staff and volunteers are dedicated and caring, it’s even more important to be intentional about setting boundaries on time and creating clear guidelines for when to say no. As budgets are cut and many organizations face downsizing, there comes a limit where we can’t keep doing more with less. Clearly articulating organizational priorities that help people know where to focus and importantly, what to delay or stop altogether, helps keep people from burning out.
And beyond prioritizing and holding boundaries, care personally about the people around you. We spend so many waking hours with our coworkers, more than almost anyone else. Yes, we’re there to get a job done—and we’re all people first.
Share resources openly
Often when someone famous dies from suicide, you hear things like “I had no idea” from their closest family and friends. Maybe you yourself have lost someone you care about to suicide, or dealt with suicidal thoughts but have not shared that information with others. The truth is, anyone can be at risk of suicide.
Many people don’t talk about their suicidal thoughts with the people closest to them because of feelings of embarrassment and shame, not wanting to be a burden, and a sense of hopelessness that nothing can change. That’s why having resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline readily available and visible in your break room, restroom, Slack channel, or periodically sharing them with staff in other ways is important. You never know who might need them, and when their ready accessibility might help someone in a dark place.
For more resources, visit the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Advocate for financial resources, health care, and racial equity
Both the great recession of 2007-2009 and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic have shown just how deeply connected poverty and finances are to suicide deaths. When people lose their jobs, experience barriers to employment (like discrimination due to behavioral health disorders, race, gender, etc.) or otherwise face income instability, the suicide rate tends to go up.
While resources for suicide prevention and mental health support are an important piece of the puzzle, we need to go beyond just “checking in.” In the workplace, true change starts from within: in our philosophies about how we compensate staff, how we support their health, and how we address racism within our organizations.
As we’ve seen financial turmoil affect suicide rates, the systemic discrimination that BIPOC face directly impacts behavioral health and contribute to self-harm and suicide. Engaging in advocacy that genuinely advances change in the financial stability of communities, their access to health care, and their liberation, are critical components of suicide prevention.
This World Suicide Prevention Day (and everyday), let’s work to create a world in which people actually want to live—and in which they see a future for themselves.
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