Suicide accounts for close to 800,000 suicide fatalities globally (Ritchie et al., 2015). In the United States, 1.38 million suicide attempts and 47,511 deaths by suicide were reported in 2019 (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2021). In 2017, 38,000 persons of working age (16–64 years) in the United States died by suicide, which represents a 40 percent rate increase in less than two decades (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
It is suggested that certain occupations may be correlated with higher rates of suicidal behavior. Research revealed that protective services and healthcare support were two occupation groups with higher suicide rates (Coleman et al., 2018). Have you wondered about the suicide risk factors and rates of suicide among social workers? Many social work professionals experience secondary trauma at work, which can cause mental health issues in their personal lives. Given the primary and secondary trauma social workers often witness in their work, a focus on self-care and suicide prevention are important for our field. Unfortunately, there is not a strong research base to better understand suicidality among helping professionals. Through my research, in a suicidology graduate course taught by Dr. Greta Slater, I discovered some helpful information about suicidality and prevention for the social work profession.
Suicidology Research Among Helpers
Social workers often witness and experience primary and secondary trauma in their line of work. Working in certain sensitive areas such as gender-based violence and childhood sexual abuse can trigger traumatic feelings that can lead to stress, maladaptive coping, sleep disturbances, and depression (Coleman et al., 2018). Vicarious trauma is also a common risk factor for mental health professionals, which can facilitate chronic stress, impaired psychological wellbeing, quality of life, burnout, and decreased help-seeking (Banerjee et al., 2020). There are significant associations between work-related stress, vicarious trauma, burnout, and suicidal ideation (Andela, 2021). Stack (2004) found that being a social worker increased the odds of death by suicide by 55.6% compared to the rest of the working-age population, but there is little specific research recently about social workers’ risk of suicide.
Several effective interventions reduce suicidality among helping professionals. Mindfulness-based interventions are a viable option, as they decrease perceived stress and promote positive changes in attitude, perspective, behaviors, and energy (Crowder & Sears, 2017). Supervisors implementing the Safe Haven Model (SHM) may also provide a protective factor to the workplace, serving as a resource to help reduce suicide behavior (Boccio & Macari, 2014). The SHM is an approach to workplace suicide prevention that consists of three objectives: (1) creating a positive and supportive work environment conducive to psychological well-being; (2) increasing managers’ and coworkers’ awareness of risk factors for suicide; and (3) promoting utilization of mental health support services.
My Thoughts and Recommendations
Given the lack of direct information and research on suicidal behavior in the social work profession, intervention, and prevention methods for professionals in the field may not be provided. Organizations need to provide prevention, intervention, and self-care promoting benefits to those who work in the field to help mitigate the negative effects associated with the job, including possible suicidal behavior. To accomplish this, additional research is needed about the exact scope and prevalence of suicidality among social workers and the most effective treatments with helpers. There is still much we do not know about suicidal thoughts and behaviors among social workers and other helping professionals, but there are things we can do: (1) get involved with local suicide prevention efforts; (2) ask social work colleagues about suicidal feelings and burnout; (3) seek gatekeeper training such as Question, Persuade, Refer; (4) practice good self-care; (5) identify your own feelings of burnout and depression; (6) collect data about the rates of depression, suicide ideation, and burnout at your organizations; and (7) find support through local suicide prevention, community mental health centers, and social service agencies.