Q: I have two young kids. One of my co-workers has two teenagers. We're friendly but not close, though we have shared stories of our kids in the past. She's been out of the office for a couple of days. I saw her on the interoffice messenger, so I reached out to see how she was doing. She dumped on me that her eldest tried to commit suicide the other day, and that's why she has not been at work. I was stunned and not sure how to respond. If she were a friend of mine, I probably would have taken the day off and gone to her house. But I don't know her outside work. How do I support her? I don't want to avoid the topic, but I also don't want to keep bringing it up because it's a hard thing to go through. I don't have any personal experience with it, but I want her to know that I support her — even if I am not personally going over to her and supporting her.
A: You have been given an opportunity here, and I am glad you wrote; let’s look at your co-worker’s divulgence as an invitation rather than a burden.
When we are parenting young children, the idea of a child wanting to take his own life scares and shakes us to our core. Unless suicide has touched your own life, it feels impossible that it will come to your own family. You may feel a burden knowing this news, and what you feel is your own vulnerability to the reality of suicide. It is a significant reality in the United States right now. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34 (after unintentional injury). Suicide for everyone went up 28 percent from 1999 to 2016. Thousands of lives lost, and yet, suicide remains shrouded in shame and secrecy.
What is your role? What happens when you, the mother of young children, receive information like this? You could go the way many do, which is to mumble something about how sad and sorry you are, and then ignore it. Or you could see this as an opportunity to do something different.
I am going to suggest some brave tips:
1. Write your co-worker back and let her know how sorry you are, how you know this happens to teens (attempted suicide), and thank her for her honesty. I suggest telling her you’re aware of the frequency of attempted suicide not to undermine the seriousness of the matter, but to let her know that you know she is suffering and she is not alone. Maybe she is an open book, or maybe she is uber-private. Either way, she showed some serious vulnerability here. Don’t gloss over it.
2. Encourage your co-worker to check in with human resources to be sure she is getting the full range of benefits available. It is not your job to know these benefits, nor is it your job to drag her there, but a simple and loving idea can sometimes cut through fear and grief and help your co-worker advocate for herself.
3. When your co-worker returns, ask her to have coffee with you. Here is the beauty of being a good human when you hear such awful news: You are not beholden to do or say anything. You can simply listen. You don’t have to be a therapist or say the right thing. You can still hold your personal and professional boundaries (have a meeting coming up if you feel worried a coffee will go too long) while being a compassionate person. If coffee feels too intimate, stop by her desk or write an email, but I encourage you to step out of your box. (We are having a face-to-face crisis in this country — we don’t do it anymore, and we should.)
You wrote and asked how you can support your co-worker, and my response is simple: with as much humanity, compassion and healthy boundaries as you can. When someone is reeling with worry, anger and fear, simply experiencing a kind face, a smile, a true “how are you?” can become a lifeline. And because suicide is already polarizing and scary to many of us, there is a greater chance your co-worker feels ostracized and lonely. By extending yourself even a little bit, you are helping to destigmatize suicide.
If everyone reacted with compassion and connection to suicide and suicide attempts, imagine the difference this could make! As a country, we could stop seeing teen suicide and suicide attempts as selfish, a moral failing or a product of “bad parenting,” and instead understand the complexity of mental health for every individual. Imagine the support and honesty that could come from that discussion.
You wrote to me with a burden, and now I return the burden back to you as an invitation. Bravely and quietly, stay a compassionate presence to and for your co-worker. You will not heal her or her family, but you will be surprised (or maybe not) at the difference you can make in her life.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration operates the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can be reached by calling 800-273-TALK (8255) or by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org.