HR must ‘start the conversation’ to prevent employee suicide, SHRM speaker says

Editor’s note: This story contains discussion of suicide. For more information, see our editorial standards. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Prevention Lifeline, accessible by dialing 988, provides 24/7, free and confidential support for anyone in distress, in addition to prevention and crisis resources. The service also provides free access via text and online chat.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Hardly anyone talks about suicide despite trends showing that the issue is getting worse — which is why HR professionals must start the conversation, Frank King, a suicide prevention speaker and self-described “mental health comedian,” told attendees Monday at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Inclusion conference.

“Almost everybody has a story,” King said. “It’s almost as if they’re waiting for someone to mention the words ‘depression’ and ‘suicide’ out loud to give voice to their feelings and experiences surrounding these things.”

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the U.S. experienced one death by suicide every 11 minutes in 2021, which added up to more than 48,000 total deaths. Provisional numbers for 2022 showed the number of total suicide deaths was more than 49,000 last year.

King spoke on the issue through his own lens as someone diagnosed with major depressive disorder and chronic suicidal ideation. He said his condition is such that even minor life problems can lead to thoughts of suicide.

“My car broke down a couple of years ago. I had three thoughts unbidden: get it fixed, buy a new one or I could just kill myself. I know that sounds absurd,” King said with a subtle levity, acknowledging the nervous reaction from the morning crowd.

He added that it is okay to have a sense of humor toward the subject. Talking about suicide, he said, can help others open up about their mental health in surprising ways. He recalled how he once told the same story during a keynote address to college students. Afterwards, an audience member came up to thank him.

“‘I’ve been having those thoughts all my life,’” King said, quoting what the audience member, who also experienced suicidal ideation, had told him. “‘I didn’t know it had a name. I realized for the first time in my life that I’m not alone, and I wept.’”

Over time, King’s encounters with people who have mental health challenges showed him that these individuals come from diverse backgrounds. “I kept meeting people who had a mental challenge, but they also had some extraordinary ability,” he said. “They just thought differently, which I think has a great place in the workplace, where everybody doesn’t think quite the same.”

Know where to find resources, training

The topic is also of particular importance to HR because the vast majority of people who die by suicide are working-age adults, King said. That statistic comes from Workplace Suicide Prevention, an organization that provides free resources to employers.

HR teams can avail themselves of training programs offered by groups like SHRM, King continued. He highlighted SHRM’s partnership with mental health platform Psych Hub to offer a “Workplace Mental Health Ally Certificate” program that addresses topics such as communication, substance abuse and suicide and violence prevention.

King also pointed attendees in the direction of, an organization that provides training for responding to mental illness and substance use disorders, as well as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has chapters in every U.S. state and provides free services such as family-to-family counseling and peer-to-peer counseling that could be helpful to employees as well as their families.

HR teams also can take targeted steps to create workplace emergency plans that include suicide prevention measures. Healthcare partners also may have resources; for example, Aetna announced in 2021 that it was partnering with Psych Hub to develop a specialty provider network specifically for suicide prevention.

How to talk through depression, suicide

Empathy is key when speaking to people who have thoughts of suicide, according to King.

“It’s difficult for people who are neurotypical to wrap their heads around how life can be so bad that you would want to end it,” he said. “For most people, it’s simply about ending pain.”

Even something as simple as paying attention to how employees present themselves at work can alert others in the workplace that someone is experiencing depression. Three of the top signs of depression are changes in eating behaviors, such as being unable to eat or eating in excess; changes in sleep, including having trouble getting out of bed in the morning — which may translate to being late for work; and changes in personal hygiene, King said.

Other signs to pay attention to include whether the person talks about death and dying; conducts internet searches about death or dying by suicide; touches on death as a theme in their music, art or writing; and attempts to get their affairs in order, including by giving away prized possessions.

HR professionals should take care when discussing the topic. For example, they should avoid terms such as “commit” in reference to a suicide attempt, King said, because that word “has a lot of baggage. You commit a crime, an adultery, a sin … we’re trying to change that to died by suicide or completed a suicide.”

Similarly, HR should know what not to say to people experiencing mental health issues, such as telling them to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or recommending dietary supplements, King said.

“Here’s what you say to somebody who’s depressed: I’m here for you and I mean it. I know you’re not lazy or crazy or self-absorbed. I know depression is a mental illness. With time and treatment, things will get better. I will take the time and help you get the treatment.”

But in order for HR to start the conversation, it must also be direct, King said. 

“You have to ask them this, in no uncertain terms: Are you having thoughts of suicide? Just like that,” King said. “As a matter of fact, if you mention it out loud, they’re less likely to die by suicide.”

And if the answer is yes, the follow up question should be, “Do you have a plan?” King said. “If they have a plan, what is your plan? If it’s a detailed time, place and method, you need to get them to a mental health facility for evaluation immediately.”

If the answer is no, the follow up should be, “‘Tell me why not.’ Make them give voice to whatever is keeping them here.”