Suicidal signs in your staff

Feb. 21, 2011
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S, tells you how to recognize team members who may be suicidal and explains steps you can take to help. Regardless of your job title, you can make a difference in a coworker’s life if you are willing to ask questions, listen, care, and if need be, take yourself out of your comfort zone.

By Lisa Newburger, LISW-S

Lynda arrived late to work, again. She was very upset, looking like she had been up all night, with puffy eyes and a sad expression. Her boyfriend broke up with her a month ago, and she was devastated. She was losing weight, not sleeping, and was on the verge of tears every morning when she arrived for work. Before the breakup, she would crack jokes with her patients and laugh with her coworkers, but something changed. It was as if she had given up and was just barely existing. Her depression was so severe that her coworker Pam wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. One morning, Lynda blurted out, “I want to go to sleep and never wake up. I can’t live without my boyfriend.” Pam became anxious, not knowing what to do. Was Lynda talking about suicide?

Suicide is a frightening thing to talk about. It’s one of those things that people don’t want to think can happen. Lynda wasn’t looking for attention. She was in terrible pain and didn’t see any other solution. If this situation happens in your dental office, you need to know what to do. First, listen carefully to what is being said. Second, ask probing questions, such as “Lynda, are you thinking about killing yourself?” Don’t be afraid to ask this question. You aren’t going to put this idea in someone’s head. Third, tell her that you are concerned and care about what happens to her. Depression is a lonely, painful place. You can make the difference between life and death. You can save a life. You need to be aware of the signs of suicide.

What should you look for?

  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep changes — increased or decreased
  • Increased alcohol/drug/prescription drug use
  • Giving possessions away
  • Risky behavior
  • Statements about wanting to die
  • Crying
  • Loss of interest in things the person enjoys
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Hopelessness
  • Increased moodiness/depression/anger

Lynda had many of these symptoms. When she talked about wanting to die, she was taken seriously. You need to ask, “What do you mean?” “Have you thought about how you would do that?” “Do you have a plan?” “Do you have sleeping pills at home?” If any answer is yes, you need to take action. You are not a suicide prevention specialist. No one expects you to respond like a specialist would. Realize that you are human, and you care about people. The first thing you need to do is to tell another person at the office what’s going on.

But if you ever hear this statement, “I want to tell you something and you need to promise me that it stays between you and me,” your response should be, “There are times when I can’t promise that. If someone is a danger to themselves or others, I need to let someone know.” If you make that promise and the person ends his or her life, how will you cope with that? Don’t allow yourself to be put in that position.

“I’m really concerned about you.” “Does your family know you feel this way?” Is there someone we can call and tell how you’re doing right now?” “I need to let the dentist know.” “I think we should give your doctor a call.” If at all possible, do not allow someone to leave the office. Call 911 if you think someone is actively suicidal and needs to be assessed. Have someone else in the office call a suicide hotline for help on how to handle the situation.

We live in a society where people don’t want to “get involved.” Get over it. Getting involved could save a life. Sometimes you must take a risk, and your coworker may become angry with you for getting help. But do you care enough about the person to allow the anger? It’s a tough position to be in, but it can happen.

What if you were the one who felt suicidal? What should you do? Should you talk to someone? Things are more frightening when you have a secret you cannot express. Depression is a dark, frightening place, and the sense of helplessness can overtake you. By reaching out and letting someone know what’s going on, another person can help. You don’t have to do this on your own. Often people feel very tired, and there is a comfort of sorts in a deep depression. It is hard to explain, but seeking help can be very difficult when you are in this stage. Others can help. Let them.

Where do you go for help?

  • 911
  • Family physician
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK
  • Clinical counselor/therapist
  • Emergency room
  • Psychiatric hospital

Lynda was hospitalized later that day. The staff was very worried about her. They didn’t know what to do, so they called her family. Her father contacted her doctor. Knowing someone cares about how you are doing is so valuable. You have to be willing to ask questions, listen, care, and if need be, take yourself out of your comfort zone. Regardless of what your job title is, you can make a difference in your coworker’s life. Yes it is scary, but you don’t have to do it alone. Remember, help is out there, whether it’s for your coworker or yourself.

Author bio
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S, is a social worker who provides humorous programs on topics that people do not want to discuss. She can be reached at [email protected].