How should frontline staff respond to customers or service users talking about suicide and what can organisations do about it?
According to information published by the Office of National Statistics on the 31st January 2011 the number of suicides in the UK fell slightly in 2009 to 5,675. Despite this good news Samaritans believes that suicide rates may still increase over the coming years as the long term effects of the recession, rising unemployment and budget cuts take their toll on the mental health of the nation. Only time will tell if they are right. Organisations I’ve worked with, particularly those in the financial sector, who might have expected to receive one or two calls a year from customers stating they intend to end their life are getting ten or twenty now.
It’s difficult for organisations to know how to respond to this. Ten or twenty calls represent only a tiny minority of contacts received each year and to take staff out of the workplace for training requires a huge commitment of time and resource.
On the other hand taking a call like this can be especially traumatic and organisations will feel a responsibility to ensure their employees are adequately trained and supported. There are also other issues that need to be considered; does the organisation feel it has a responsibility to its customers or service users to respond appropriately and make an effective referral? What is the potential risk to the organisation if a customer tells a member of staff they intend to take their own life, the call ends with no action taken and the customer then goes on to commit suicide?
Ultimately the decision on whether to address the issue (and how to address it) comes down to a combination of factors: the number of calls, the impact on staff, and the organisations attitude to social responsibility and reputational risk.
The Two Most Commonly Asked Questions About Suicidal Contacts in the Workplace
1 What action can an organisation take in the unlikely event a customer or service user says they are in the process of taking their own life?
Much depends on any restrictions that may exist around confidentiality. Most organisations I have worked with would call the police in these exceptional circumstances and provide them with any information they had on the whereabouts of the caller.
2 What can be done if a customer is distressed and perhaps talking of suicide but not in the process of taking their life?
You can always signpost distressed callers to Samaritans. Sounds difficult doesn’t it! In fact it’s just that the subject matter raises anxieties in all of us but actually it’s no different to referring a caller to CAB. Acknowledging suicidal thoughts and feelings does not reinforce the idea in people’s minds.
Towards the end of the call you can say something like ‘You mentioned earlier that you felt suicidal – would you find it helpful to talk to Samaritans?’ They can always say no but at least the offer has been made. Anyone can contact Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or 1850 60 90 90 in the ROI.
Interested in finding out more about our training courses on responding to customers or service users who are distressed or suicidal? Call us or email us today to discuss your training needs further.