The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought the topic of suicide into daily conversations—at home, at work, and on social media. A member of our team saw a tweet from DC-based employment attorney, Jonathan Segal, about an issue that came up when an HR professional shared suicide prevention information with employees. The tweet read:

#HR professional sent out information on #suicide prevention. “Leader” responded negatively, asking in imperious way why would the HR person send out. Not sure how to advise, knowing the client is the corporation. Thoughts?

There were a variety of responses to Segal’s tweet—all of them focused on the idea that “health” includes physical and mental health, and many employees have mental health needs—needs for which an employer can provide resources. As one responder said, “providing mental health resources is no different than providing resources for a local gym.”

This discussion rang true for me. I not only have experience handling these issues as an HR professional, but also know the pain when a dear loved one with a mental illness commits suicide. My experience leads me to believe that although suicide is personal, there are steps employers can take to support mental health in the workplace and possibly make a difference that could save someone’s life.

We can hope that people we know and love will never face a mental health crisis, but that’s not realistic. I have three reminders regarding mental health at work:

1) Mental health issues can be an invisible disability
2) Education helps increase awareness
3) Offhand comments have an impact

1) Mental health issues can be an invisible disability

Family or close friends may know that someone is struggling with mental health issues, but it may not be obvious to people at work. The fact that we can’t always “see” mental illness can make it an invisible disability that can be debilitating to the victim.

Not only are these potentially invisible, there is social stigma around mental health which may deter someone from asking for help. This fact makes it even more important for organizations to share information and talk openly about mental health resources.

2) Education increases awareness

In an article published by the Society for Human Resources, the employment attorney Segal makes the suggestion that HR practitioners educate themselves and leaders about suicide to avoid ignorance when addressing this illness.

“Severe depression, often coupled with substance abuse, is one of the primary causes of suicide,” he writes. “Do not expect employees to just ‘deal with it.’ Substitute ‘cancer’ for ‘depression’ and you will see how cold and/or ignorant someone may sound if they suggest mental illness is weakness.”

In addition to being aware of unintentional bias against mental health illness, some employers hire counselors to teach managers how to spot warning signs (e.g., a decline in personal hygiene or a big change in someone’s personality, or offhand comments about “being better off without me”).

3) Offhand comments have an impact

As an HR manager, one of the employees I supported called me with a concern about her manager. The employee, whom I’ll call Emily, said that she sensed in the past few months that her manager, I’ll call him Bob, had been depressed and discouraged about work. During a meeting that day, he’d said, “I should just get a rope.”

When he made the comment about the rope, Emily became seriously concerned, which was when she called me. She was upset and cried as she explained the situation. I thanked her for sharing her concern and I contacted Bob immediately.

While talking with Bob, I reminded him about the employee assistance program (EAP), and said my door was always open if he needed to talk. When I mentioned the comment about the rope that had caused Emily to be worried, he said he wasn’t serious—that it was “just an offhand comment.”

This situation impressed upon me the importance of choosing our words carefully. Bob didn’t intend to cause Emily distress, but his offhand comment was upsetting. Taking one’s life is not something to mention in jest—not only does it make others worry; it can also elicit previous traumatic life experiences for people who hear someone hint at committing suicide.

If an employer is in a position to provide healthcare for employees, it’s my belief and conviction that those plans should include assistance for mental health care. Employees should be encouraged to use those resources and there should be open dialogue around the value of asking for help when necessary. We can never know what motivates someone to commit suicide, but we can do everything in our power to offer support and provide access to assistance that might help.