Local business leaders attended a seminar last week to learn what employers can do to address the warning signs of suicide witnessed in the workplace.
Ellen Dunn and Mark Bergstrom led the seminar for the Tuolumne County Suicide Prevention Task Force, a group formed to respond to suicide in the county.
The seminar focused on risk factors among adults including relationship issues, problems at the job site or substance abuse, as well as promoting “protective factors” including social support and coping skills.
The task force takes a multifaceted approach to suicide prevention in the county, and the workplace-focused seminar was the avenue chosen to target at-risk adults, Dunn said.
The seminar pointed out not only the human costs of depression and suicide, but the monetary cost to the business.
“It has both angles, including the pragmatic looking at cost and absenteeism,” Dunn said.
The program was actually based off of a model created by the U.S. Air Force, which focused on reducing the stigma about admitting depression and getting leadership to encourage workers to seek help.
“The whole Air Force deal was that it had to be top down,” Dunn said. “Leaders have to buy in and prioritize suicide prevention and say that addressing mental health issues early is a strength, not a weakness.”
According to the presentation, employers can help at-risk employees by providing an return to work plans, access to information and help with depression and ensuring an environment of confidentiality.
Employers responded positively to the program.
Christina Caetano, human resources manager for Front Porch Inc., said that the seminar was eye-opening and reinforced the importance of addressing such a touchy subject.
“I feel much better prepared to talk openly about suicide and depression,” Caetano said. “I see the value of educating staff and our workers more in the attempt to counter the stigma of depression. It’s one of those things that perhaps an employee might not feel comfortable saying out loud.”
The statistics surrounding depression surprised Abby Parcon, safety compliance coordinator for the Tuolumne Utilities District.
According to the presentation, some 18.8 million people suffer from depression every year and 80 percent go untreated.
“Just going over some of the signs of depression and the statistics of people who suffer from depression at some time or another is kind of astounding,” Parcon said. “It opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t know what someone’s going through in their life, and that you’ve got to take that into account, and can’t be too quick to judge.”