Nonprofits, we need to talk about mental health and suicide

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Hi everyone, this post is going to be a little serious, but I hope you will read it and discuss with your team. The recent suicides in the news have made me think about our sector and our responsibility to one another.

Ten years ago, a friend of mine took her life a day after calling me asking to hang out. I would learn later from her mom that she had been dealing with bipolar disorder for a long time, and hid it from her friends and coworkers. I wished that I had been a better friend, that I had known what she was going through, that I had supported her more.

My friend’s suicide made me realize that we have a long way to go when it comes to mental health awareness, even among those of us who are in the nonprofit sector and thus are supposed to be more attuned to the people around us. Because mental health conditions are mostly invisible, our colleagues, friends, and family members may be going through challenges, and we may not be aware of it. Or we may be unintentionally creating an environment where mental illness is stigmatized, leading to further isolation.

I asked colleague Ashley Fontaine, executive director of NAMI Seattle, the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) what nonprofits need to know and do regarding mental health and suicide. Here are a few things she recommends:

Talk about it, and normalize mental health as part of our overall health: There is such a stigma around mental illness that it can be hard or people to bring up the fact that they may be dealing with challenges. It’s easier to say “I have the flu and am staying home” than to say “I am struggling with anxiety and depression today and need some time off.” Mental illness is very common (one in five people live with a mental health condition). It is not a character flaw, and yet society often treats it as if it’s a sign of weakness. We need to end this stigma. Create an organizational environment where it is OK or everyone to talk about mental health and take care of themselves without discrimination.

Get trained: Bring in mental health professionals and trainers to lead conversations with your team. NAMI has free speakers through the In Our Own Voice program, and NAMI Seattle does presentations all over the city including businesses/nonprofits. Attend mental health workshops. Make sure everyone on your team has the basic knowledge of mental health, what to do to support colleagues, how to reach out if you yourself may be dealing with challenges, and how to create an environment that is open and supportive regarding mental health. Another colleague recommends vetting the workshops and trainers carefully: “I walked out of one when a training about dealing with ‘difficult’ clients was basically a perpetuation of negative views about clients living with mental health conditions.”

Provide adequate and mental-health-friendly policies and benefits: Sick leave policies should explicitly mention mental health, including preventative and ongoing treatment. Have policies in place for reasonable accommodations and include them in your employee handbook or other policy manual. This information should be as easy for employees to find as the paid holiday closure schedule. Provide health insurance, and make sure that mental health services under the plans available are on par with all the other health services your plans cover. Also, make sure you have policies around bullying and harassment, as they greatly affect team members’ mental health.

Create an environment of life-work balance, and model it: Says Ashley, “What I think is really troubling in our sector in particular, and what I want people to sit with, is the martyr syndrome people complain/brag about in the name of their mission. I hear people working 80 hour weeks, not using their vacation days, having no days off for 3 weeks straight…There are no winners in a competition to see who can run themselves into the ground the hardest. When I see organizations embodying this kind of behavior, I know that it’s not an organization that is even considering the mental health of its employees.” Let’s end this culture of martyrdom. The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman is a good book on this topic.

Avoid using stigmatizing words like “crazy.” This is extremely hard to do, because terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” “schizophrenic,” and “loony” have been so ingrained into our vernacular and culture. I have a hard time personally trying to stop using the word “crazy” for everything: I had a crazy weekend; I’m crazy busy; that meeting was crazy. (I’m trying to change it to “surreal.”) These terms continue the pattern where we unconsciously stigmatize mental illness, even when we would never do it consciously, which makes it harder for all of us to be open about it, and to be supportive of one another.

Understand that any of us can be at risk for suicide: Suicide has increased over the past decade, to the point where it is now a public health epidemic. It’s easy to think that only people who have mental health conditions die by suicide. But a report from the CDC came out this month that disproves this premise. More than half of people who died by suicide did NOT have a known mental health condition. “This is a big, big red flag,” says Ashley, “because it seems to demonstrate how our societal, interpersonal, and economic stressors are playing a role in the suicide rate. It’s not just people who have mental illness. Any of us can be at risk for suicide, and reducing the suicide rate requires a public health approach that includes employers, educators, media, community organizations, and government.”

Care personally about one another: ‘We spend so much time at work. Often we see the people we work with for more hours each week than our family and friends.” Yet we may not have any idea that our colleagues may be going through something. And sometimes we do notice that something may be wrong, but we may not know what to do about it. And because of the stigma of mental illness and fear of liabilities or other reasons, we may not act. Let’s care about one another enough to act, even when we may not know all the answers.

Check in on colleagues who may be having challenges: If you think someone may need support, check in on them. Listen. Show that you care. Let them know that you are there in case they need someone to talk to. The awkwardness is worth it. “There is so much power in just being with another person, being seen and heard, even if they don’t have answers for the problem you’re facing. When we are struggling, sometimes we withdraw and sometimes people withdraw from us, but human connection is vital for everyone.” The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available for people trying to support someone who is having thoughts of suicide. If you’re not sure what to do, call them.

If you are feeling suicidal, please get help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or use their text or chat line. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or The national suicide prevention lifeline is confidential and free. You may also need to go to your nearest emergency department. Please also call a friend or family member. If you are not in urgent crisis but still are in need of support and connection, NAMI has free support groups all across the country led by people who have been there themselves.

Ashley brings up an important point: “For many folks, concerns about the cost of an ER visit and sometimes other financial concerns keep people from getting help. I don’t want to downplay that. Going to the hospital is expensive if you don’t have health care coverage. But your life is worth it. Many hospitals have financial assistance available, but you have to do the paperwork; if you do use a hospital and wind up with a bill, call their financial department or ask a friend or family member for help contacting them.”

I know there is a lot more to cover. Here are other resources Ashley recommends: 

  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  • Forefront Suicide Prevention: (this one is local, part of University of Washington)
  • Mental Health First Aid: For people who would like some training about what to do as a bystander during a mental health crisis. Like CPR, for mental health. There are folks in Washington State who teach it, and it’s available nationwide too.
  • Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
  • The Crisis Clinic (also local)
  • NAMI also just came out with this free PDF crisis guide for those experiencing a mental health emergency

Thank you, Ashley and NAMI, for all your work. 

I hope that this is a start. Please bring this topic to your next team meeting. Let us normalize mental health, de-stigmatize mental illness, and take care of ourselves and one another as we take care of our community.

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