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Carreer Junction by Michele Majul-IbarraRecognizing the dangers of self-harm

by Michele Majul-Ibarra

The recent deaths of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain have sparked rousing discussions around mental health issues on all sorts of media platform. Their unfortunate fates have definitely highlighted the grim reality that mental illnesses do not discriminate.

Every year in Canada, between 3,500 and 4,000 individuals take their own lives. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, many of these deaths are caused by using firearms, which represents about 75 per cent of gun-related deaths. According Statistics Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 34 year olds with the highest rates occurring during midlife. There also appears to be a correlation between suicide rates and divorce rates according to the study.

A separate report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information indicates that young women ages 15 to 19 are most likely to self-inflict harm, double the rate of their male peers. The report states that the most common form of self-harm is by poisoning, which includes drug overdose at 85 per cent. Cutting or piercing comes in second at 10 per cent and third is strangulation at 2 per cent.

Research shows that those who have a close relationship to a person who has died from suicide are vulnerable to self-harm as well. In fact, a 2006 study by the public service organization, LivingWorks, found that they are 40 times more at risk of committing suicide themselves as a result of the suicide of a loved one.

In the workplace, deaths related to self-harm or suicides include impact on co-workers, the employer and clients. When threats of self-harm or suicide have occurred or are occurring within the workplace, it is critical that the workplace is aware and knowledgeable of what they need to do. This is mostly because dealing with a suicide loss is different from other types of mourning. It is also different from dealing with other types of medical illnesses. Suicide loss is significantly different because it is an intentional act of harming oneself that has a tremendous impact on family, friends and those whom they regularly interact with in the workplace.

The impact on survivors can undoubtedly be life changing. In the workplace, while for the most part the responsibility of awareness appears to rest on the supervisor or the team leader, we all have a part to play in supporting those who may be at risk.

First and foremost, it is very important to take the time to educate oneself about mental illnesses. A lot of workplaces nowadays offer in-house awareness courses or workshops. For other organizations, employees are able to request through their employer to take courses from an external provider. Learning the skills to identify and recognize the state of mental health in peers can be an invaluable tool for prevention.

While not all individuals who are at risk for self-harm or suicide like to disclose their circumstances, when they do talk to someone they can trust, it is very important for the receiver to take the conversation very seriously. Even if they might feel they are betraying that person’s trust and confidence, suicide and self-harm are too serious to ignore. Most workplaces have an EAP provider (Employee Assistance Program). Always have their number handy and encourage the person to seek help. If required, offer to dial the number for them and offer to stay with them for the duration of the call. If unsure whether the situation can be dealt with in this manner, report the issue to a supervisor or manager, and they may be able to assist with arranging for a mobile crisis unit to do a wellness check. It is also important for those providing assistance to call EAP for their own purposes as it is often difficult to be part of a process of helping someone in crisis.

Mental illness is like a big elephant in the room that no one wants to every talk about, but it is our responsibility to be aware of the issue and know what to do when crises arise. Supporting one another in the workplace goes a long way.

This article is intended for information purposes only and not to be considered as professional advice.

If you are in crisis or need assistance regarding someone in crisis, contact Manitoba Suicide Line: 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170)


Michele Majul-Ibarra, IPMA-ACP is an Advanced Certified HR Professional with the International Personnel Management Association. She graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Human Resource Management. She also holds the C.I.M. professional designation (Certified in Management). E-mail her at

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