‘Are You Considering Suicide?’ and other questions to ask your co-workers

In a glass conference room in midtown Manhattan, a few dozen employees from Beacon Health Inc.are taking turns asking each other an incredibly awkward question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” There’s a right way to ask and a wrong way, and they’re here to learn the difference.

The exercise is just one component of an eight-hour course in “mental first aid,” a relatively new kind of training that, like first aid or CPR, is designed to give ordinary people tools to help someone in need. And as with first aid and CPR, companies have begun to see the value in having employees who have the skills to say something, if they see something.

About 40 employers have trained more than 1,300 people over the last two years, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, which first imported the program from here Australia in 2008 and adapted it for Americans.

This year, it plans to train 6,000 workers through company-sponsored courses. Aetna Inc., George Washington University, real estate developer Lendlease Group and the health-care technology companies Cerner Corp. and Netsmart Technologies have all sponsored workshops for their employees.

“There’s a growing recognition that mental health and addiction problems are having an impact in many ways, driving up health-care costs and absenteeism,” said Betsy Schwartz, the vice president of public education and strategic initiatives at NCBH. “Companies know that’s true.”

When Jessica Caskey was working in human resources at a national park in Alaska, an employee placed an explosive device outside his boss’s office. In many ways, things turned out as well as possible. The police came, nobody was hurt and after the employee was released from custody, Caskey fired him.

Looking back, though, Caskey thinks she could’ve handled it better. The employee had showed signs of suffering from “some sort of mental health illness,” Caskey said. “Nobody took the time to dive in and figure out what was happening.”

The mental-health first aid classes are designed to help people like Caskey do just that. Last year, she was one of 41 managers at Taos ski resort in New Mexico who took the course. “We’re not making anyone a clinician,” Schwartz said. “We’re just teaching, as a clergy person told me recently, how to be good neighbors.”

– Rebecca Greenfield and John Tozzi

Read more: ‘Are You Considering Suicide?’

Image by Fernando from Unsplash