Suicide: A growing US crisis
September was Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. Globally, more than 700,000 people die of suicide every year, and many more attempt suicide or have a serious mental health crisis (WHO 2022). In 2022, over 49,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. and 65% were working age (18-64) (CDC 2022). Suicide rates increased in the U.S. by 26% for men and 53% for women from 1999-2017, contributing to the decline in U.S. life expectancy. In working age groups (ages 15-64), the increases tended to be greater – 27%-45% in men and 42%-93% in women. Between 2000-2019, the suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 45% compared to declines or little change in the rate in other wealthy countries.
U.S. men are 4 times more likely to complete suicide compared to women, and several male-dominated occupations have a much higher risk of suicide, including agricultural workers and farmers, first responders, and healthcare workers (especially physicians and dentists). Suicide rates in the US (2000-2014) were highest among people with a high school education, followed by those with less than a high school education, and then lower rates among people with a college degree.
Workplace risk factors for suicide
While an extreme example of how work influences suicide, a sizeable cluster of suicides at France Telecom, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, resulted in prison sentences for the CEOs and other executives. Suicide notes were left by some of the over 40 workers who committed suicide, blaming the harassing, toxic work culture, imposed by the executives, in order to force people to quit. While work is essential to our economic wellbeing, and can provide cognitive and emotional growth, and social support, it can also be a contributing factor to suicide.
Unemployment increases the risk of suicide two-fold. So while having work may be protective in many ways, it also may depend on the quality of that job including the level of chronic stressors. In a 2022 review and meta-analysis of the research on the role of work in suicide, the authors established:
- a positive correlation between work-related stress and an increased risk of suicide
- high workloads, workplace bullying, harassment, discrimination, social isolation, long work hours, and limited job control and social support, have been linked to suicidal ideation and attempts
- work stress can also contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which are strong risk factors for suicide
- individuals experiencing work-related stress may also turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, further increasing suicide risk
Healthy Work Needs to be included in Workplace Suicide Prevention
Some U.S. employers are recognizing this public health crisis, and enacting suicide prevention programs in the workplace that focus on raising awareness, early intervention, and destigmatizing seeking help. But still, waiting until someone is in distress is not ideal.
The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has provided guidance on suicide prevention for healthcare workers. Some U.S. unions are also addressing the suicide crisis, along with a crisis in substance use, through Member or Union Assistance Programs.1 Preventing suicide in the U.S. construction industry is a priority for the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR). A similar suicide prevention program in Australia (MATES in Construction) may have contributed to the decline in suicide deaths among Australian construction workers between 2001-2019, a decline greater than the decline for other workers in Australia.
As responsible employers, unions, government officials and compassionate colleagues, it’s our duty to address this issue head-on and also create a safe and supportive environment for our coworkers. The Healthy Work Campaign encourages organizations to assess their psychosocial work environment to ensure it is supportive and free of toxic work stressors. The Healthy Work Survey, and other free online tools, can help organizations take the pulse of their organization (and employees) and then take proactive steps to reduce the harmful work stressors that can contribute to poor mental health and increase the risk of suicide.
If you or someone you know is expressing thoughts of suicide call or text 988, and they will be connected to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This confidential support line is available 24 hours a day to provide free help to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress.
1 Member or Union Assistance Programs