Making matters worse, Fleming says, is a “macho” culture that makes seeking help difficult. “Cops are afraid of being seen as weak among their peers or having their superior take them off the streets. Their reputation and even their career could be on the line,” he says.
Workplace suicide rates among farmers were even higher than among police officers, the researchers found. Farmers’ vulnerability to suicide has previously been associated with many factors, from living rurally, which leaves farmers socially isolated and without access to mental health services, to financial hardship. Also high were workplace suicides among those in automotive maintenance and repair occupations. This has previously been attributed to chronic and long-term exposure to chemical solvents, which are linked to depressive symptoms and emotional instability. However, notes Teisman, “there are many other occupations that are exposed to similar solvents that have known neurotoxic effects that were not associated with high workplace suicide rates.”
But still, even if occupational stresses play a role in the decision to commit suicide, why do it at work?
“People who choose workplace suicide may be doing this to protect family and loved ones from finding them after the fact,” Teisman says.
Another theory, Teisman said, comes back to the idea of lethal means. “If you are in an occupation that has regular access to lethal means [such as law enforcement], your risk for suicide may be higher. This access may not be unique to the workplace, however, as workers may be able to take certain weapons home.”
But, given that most American spent about one-third of their day on the job, the workplace provides a unique opportunity to implement suicide prevention programs. The AFSP’s Interactive Screening Program (ISP), for one, is an anonymous online survey that identifies those most at risk for suicide and connects them with support. Fleming relied on it at the Boston Police Department, as do more than 100 other workplaces, including the National Football League and the Veteran’s Administration.
“During the roll-out of the program, 60 cops did the online survey. Six of them came in for treatment and at least two of those were at risk for suicide,” Fleming says.
The ISP was initially developed to help identify college students with serious depression or other suicide risk factors. Based on its success, it was adapted for the workplace, Moutier says.
Employers using the ISP encourage all employees to take a short survey. At the completion of the survey, each person receives a response from a counselor that provides options for follow-up evaluation and treatment. Users may also chat with the counselor online while maintaining their anonymity, schedule a telephone or in-person meeting, or request a referral for treatment or other services.
“We believe the work environment can have a protective effect just as it can a harmful effect,” Moutier says.