The word suicide conjures up so many mixed emotions, and whilst there has been lots of focus on the subject in recent times, the stigma around it still exists. Unfortunately many of us will have known someone who has attempted or taken their own lives and struggle to know what, if anything we could have done to prevent it.
I can still remember Christmas Day 1986 like it was yesterday. I was a teenager and my mum had disappeared. Driven off in a rage over something. I remember feeling relieved and then immediately guilty. My mum had attempted to take her own life several times when I was age 13-16 and each time I had found her as my dad had been out or at work. These all took their toll and had a negative impact on me - I believed it was all my fault.
At the time I worked in a local building society branch, on the counter. I returned to work after the New Year, my mum was still missing and I did not know what to say to my work colleagues – I was only young and the atmosphere was awkward. There were lots of sympathetic smiles but that was all. The assistant manager asked me if I’d like to go and work in Head Office for a while. To get me off the counter and not so much in the public eye as the local media were reporting on the story and the police were regularly coming into the branch. Although it meant travelling further every day I agreed and started the next day.
For the next few weeks I worked on applications and it took my mind off the worry. I think I withdrew completely and didn’t talk about it so no one except the manager knew anything. Then one day I remember the manager saying there was a phone call and taking me into a room. It was 8th February 1987, my mum’s body had been found. I took the call, and then went back to work. They wanted me to go home but I think I was numb. I also didn’t want my colleagues to know so I worked the rest of the day and went home as normal. The rest is a bit of a blur – as you can imagine. I didn’t take much time off work, but I received flowers and cards and my branch manager came to my mum’s funeral. I went back to work soon afterwards. I just wanted normality in my life.
Back then there wasn’t the support available as there is now – such as Employee Assistance Programmes and the stigma around suicide was very high. Although there was initial sympathy, no questions were asked, and apart from the temporary work location there wasn’t any generic employer support. It was the people I worked with who were in the main caring and compassionate. Though some came across as awkward or embarrassed and simply said nothing.
Sadly I had a second experience with suicide more recently in 2016 when my father took his own life. The feelings were different. I was angry and ashamed that I didn’t see the signs – what more could I have done? I was working in a highly pressured change management environment and had deadlines and meetings to attend. My employer, and specifically my line manager was empathetic, supportive and asked me what they could do to support me. There was a fantastic EAP service who provided counselling that helped me with the initial shock and processing of the emotions. Whilst I was already aware of mental health charities this was not taken for granted and signposting and mental health champions support was all available in my organisation. Some of my time critical work was re-distributed with my input and I felt in control of work whilst at the same time truly supported. I went back to work in between the day he died and the funeral as I wanted to keep occupied and around people. There were no awkward silences, everyone took time to talk to me - simply asking how I was and if I wanted to talk about it or not it was OK. My manager checked in on me regularly over the first few weeks and I soon began to feel normal. At no time did I feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or that people were avoiding me, yet there will have been people who did feel that way I’m sure.
The two things that really made a difference were the people and the very natural way the business supported through offering signposting and interventions. At no time did I feel judged and that meant a lot to me.
Today the stigma around suicide still exists but not to the same degree. People may still feel awkward but are now more comfortable showing empathy and saying they don’t know what to say or simply “I’m thinking about you”. There is more awareness and focus around prevention as well as the importance of encouraging people to talk.
Starting a conversation about suicide is difficult. Not knowing what to say, fear of making things worse, leads to many feeling so uneasy that often they say nothing.
Campaigns such as “Ask Twice” and employers such as SPW who I have worked at since 2019, are committed to breaking down barriers and reducing stigma around mental health and want to support all of our colleagues by normalising conversations around this subject. I believe this is undoubtedly making a huge difference that I hope inspires others.
Wellbeing and CSR Manager
Schroders Personal Wealth
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