Let's talk about suicide

Louise Aston, Business in the Community wellbeing at work Director writes of bringing the taboo subject of suicide into the open and of the steps that can be taken to achieve this. 


Earlier this month, PwC hosted a ground-breaking event in partnership with Business in the Community (BITC) entitled ‘Let’s Talk About Suicide’. The event aimed to address the taboos around talking about suicide in the workplace, bring different sectors together to learn from each other’s experience and promote our new suicide prevention and postvention toolkits for employers, developed by BITC in association with Public Health England and supported by Samaritans.

Suicide is a risk for all employers.

There were nearly 5,000 suicides in England in 2015 which means someone took their own life every two hours. That’s more than double the deaths by road accidents. It’s a stunning and sad statistic and one that should make us all pause to reflect, and consider how we can all make a difference to bring this rate down. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 45 in the UK who are nearly three times as likely as women to die as a result of suicide. But the female suicide rate in England is at its highest since 2005. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young people aged from 20 to 34. 75% of people who take their own life have had no contact with health services. It was only as recently as 1961 that the suicide Act decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales so that those who failed in the attempt to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted. However, the term ‘commit’ suicide is still in common parlance.
Infographic of suicide statistics

Although suicide is no longer a crime, it remains deeply taboo. The inexplicable nature of suicide has a profound impact on people bereaved by someone who has taken then their own life.  It often comes as a devastating and unexpected shock, leaving the deepest sense of loss, one from which we struggle to recover and the impact is felt across a whole organisation and beyond. People feel deep grief, anger and guilt that they could have done something to prevent it.

The question each of us will ask is Was there something I could have done to prevent this? The reality is that the reasons for suicide are complex and can never be definitively established. It’s important for businesses to understand the signs of suicidal thoughts early on as part of a broader mental health offering.

Business in the Community is The Prince’s Responsible Business Network and our members work together to tackle issues that are essential to building a fairer society. Suicide is at the acute end of the mental health spectrum and although rare, it is a risk that every responsible employer needs to prepare for in terms of disaster management, continuity planning, developing protocols for both suicide prevention and postvention. Embedding mental wellbeing into an organisational culture is key. It’s important to equip people with the skills to embrace mental health in the workplace.

Suicide is often preventable, but prevention requires leadership, commitment and understanding from everyone. Prevention is about creating a safe culture where it’s okay to disclose that you’ve got a mental health issue, with the knowledge that you won’t be judged, seen as weak or written off, but supported.  There are big injustices surrounding mental ill health.  The deep injustice that people are suffering in silence, unable to disclose that they have a mental health issue due to fear of stigma. The massive inequality about the lack of parity of esteem between mental and physical health. It was extremely challenging and seriously difficult to persuade employers to contribute to our two suicide toolkits – particularly on the topic of postvention, the first of its’ kind for employers. The breakthrough moment was when PwC put their hand up and contributed brave case studies about the high-profile suicide of a colleague and another colleague speaking about experiencing suicidal thoughts. And indeed, for hosting this landmark conversation with business.

I applaud PwC’s pioneering leadership in coming out on this hugely taboo topic. Their openness is part of the important legacy phase following the tragedy of a suicide. We’re hoping that the event will be the start of a wider movement for talking about suicide, recognising it as a risk for all employers and prevent more lives from being lost.