New suicide report has something to say about workplace mental health

Work-related suicides have been in the press a lot in Australia over the last six months.  In June 2010, the Australian Government released a report into suicide called The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia.  It covers suicide as a social issue broadly but there are some mentions in the report about work-related suicides that are worth noting.

On social costs:

“Ms Dulcie Bird of the Dr Edward Koch Foundation argued that whole communities are often affected when a suicide occurs and described low estimates of the number of people effected by suicide as ‘a load of nonsense’. She gave the example of the suicide of a 16-year-old boy in a small town and noted her organisation had completed ’43 face-to-face interventions for that one suicide’. The Foundation commented that suicide results in the loss of the deceased person’s contribution to society as a whole. They argued:

“This loss to society is then compounded through the impact of that loss on the ability to function at an optimum level of productivity (both within the home and the workplace) when people are massively impacted by someone near to them suiciding. Also there is the wider impact on the broader community’s psyche following an individual’s loss. There is as well, the fear for the wellbeing of that person’s social network as this group has been identified as being at greater risk of suicide in the postvention period.”

Australian companies are active on the issue of mental health and its relation to suicides:

“The NSW Government noted Mental Health First Aid training would also be rolled out to RailCorp station staff in 2010 as part of an initiative ‘to address the risk and incidence of suicide in the NSW rail system’.”

The use of such training must be carefully considered and should only be applied when the workforce is ready.  Such training should not, in my opinion, be introduced after a work-related suicide as the training is complicated by other psychological issues.

It is likely that RailCorp would be more concerned about people using trains as the agency of the suicide but affect of these events on the mental health of train drivers is well established.

The LifeLine submission made a good point about the mental health of emergency services personnel and illustrates how a discussion of suicide can flow through to matters of mental health, traumatic stress and other psychosocial matters:

“The Lifeline submission also noted that some emergency service personnel, health, and other community support workers who are the first responders to a suicide incident can suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’, and at times can have misinformed attitudes towards suicidal behaviours and risk factors.”

Dr John Mendoza, until very recently the chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health is mentioned in the report:

“As an example Professor John Mendoza related the circumstances of two Queensland Ambulance Service officers who were deeply traumatised by their experience of assisting a young man to an emergency department and then being subsequently called to attend the scene of the man’s suicide a few hours later.”

There is considerable attention given male mental health in many programs. The OZHelp Foundation mentioned its “Tradies Tune-Up” program:

“Every Tradies Tune-up event that we run on site is booked out. Every time we are in the van, guys openly talk about what is going on for them. That disproves this idea that they will not seek help and will not talk about their issues. It is about finding the ways that they will talk about their issues, because they will; it is just creating the right environment to do so.”

Suicides in the farming community get attention through research programs and the “bush telegraph” more than through the media and in this report the discussion on rural needs for mental health focussed on access to services and the difficulty of providing the services rather than the underlying causes for suicide itself.

Some organisations pointed to the active role that workplaces, social groupings and networks in discussing suicide and establishing communication pathways that may deter suicides.

Mental health is probably going to be the biggest challenge to workplaces and safety professionals over the next few decades.  Studying suicide statistics and causes is often a way to emphasise the importance of mental health hazards to “old-guard” safety professionals.  Safety professionals tend to latch onto fatality statistics as a gauge of safety program success or government policy.  By looking at indisputable statistics, safety professionals may be educated in accepting psychosocial hazards as a reality AND be able to accommodate these hazards in their understanding of OHS.

As a postscript to an earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog article on work-related suicides, it is noted that suicide prevention guards are to be installed on the roof of the Riverside building in South Australia where suicides have occurred in the past.  It is hoped that this engineering solution does not stop organisations from examining the treatment of their clients that may have led to them contemplating suicide in the first place.  Guarding may eliminate the risk of the suicide but does nothing for the thought.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “New suicide report has something to say about workplace mental health”

  1. Hi Kevin, I want to thank you for bring this subject, once more into the forefront. With the latest figures well over 2000 suicides a year (I do know from a train driver friend of mine that many suicides are sometimes listed as accidents!), we, as a community, need to start asking questions and demanding answers from government, from industry, from schools, indeed from any source that feeds the suicides.
    Sheryl Dell

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