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'THE MORE WE TALK ABOUT SUICIDE AT WORK, THE LESS IT BECOMES STIGMATISED'

For our latest series on mental health, Voice spoke to communication and employee engagement specialists and mental health experts to hear their personal stories about suicide and understand what more internal comms teams and managers can do to build a culture where people feel able to talk when they reach crisis point. In our first piece, Caroline Roodhouse, content manager at agency Alive With Ideas, explains how her work environment became a safe space after her husband, Steve, died by suicide in 2018.

13th July 2021

Work became a safe space. I wanted to be around colleagues because they were my constant and very grounding. They didn’t avoid what had happened.

CAROLINE ROODHOUSE


Trigger warning – this article discusses suicide.

Steve and I met when I was 20, and we spent 18 years together. He had a wide circle of friends around the world. He’d been travelling and kept in touch with all the people he met. He was easy-going, patient, calm-natured and chilled out. He was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.

During our honeymoon in Australia, I fell from a balcony and broke my spine. I made a full recovery and Steve was amazing, looking after me brilliantly, but the experience hit him hard.

We had our daughter, Evie, in 2009, a few years after my accident. He was a natural hands-on dad, but it wasn’t easy. She was poorly in the early days, but he never talked about it.

His dad died from a brain tumour when I was pregnant, and his mum was hit by a car and died a year later. My dad died from cancer a year after that. We had low points, but he appeared to bounce back and, again, he never spoke about them.

Then we had our second daughter, Ada, and things looked brighter. He thrived on being a dad for the second time.

For work, he managed teams in field marketing. He was very well respected – I didn’t know how much until his funeral, when people talked about him being inspiring, motivational and a great leader and mentor.

 

In the years before he died, Steve's job role had changed. Field marketing changed. He was given roles in which he didn’t thrive. When Ada was born, he cut down on work and was home a lot more – but it seemed to make him enjoy work even less.

Then an opportunity came up for him to manage a team again. Things seemed to be looking better. On the first day of that new role, Steve left for work at 7.30am and said goodbye.

During the morning, I had a call from his office to say he hadn’t turned up. I assumed the car had broken down or he’d had an accident. Even though it hadn’t happened before – we’d always messaged each other – I wasn’t panicking, but his colleague in HR thought we needed to phone the police.

She called the police at lunchtime, and it was then I began to worry.

Steve never came home that night and the police treated it as a low priority case. They weren’t doing much to find him. I put a message on Facebook, and my company, Alive, reached out to its social community. I was told that in the majority of cases, the person is found. They just need some time away.

 

On the Wednesday, the police arrived outside. Something was different. There were two officers, not one. They were wearing hats and looked more official somehow.

They told me they had found him in his car, down the road in the countryside. It was clear he’d taken his own life. The shock was unbelievable.

Evie’s teachers were amazing. I spoke to someone from family liaison who offer support to children facing emotional difficulty. She referred us to children’s bereavement charities Winston’s Wish and Simon Says, who gave us lots of advice and books.

Alan [Oram, creative director at Alive] had been in touch continuously since Steve went missing – he was supportive as a friend, a colleague and a boss. I got lots of messages from the comms community, including people I hadn’t met, or I’d maybe met once at an event. Outside of work, people I didn’t know very well were hugely supportive. Close friends held me together. They still do. Family members were coping with their own sadness and found it hard to step in, and that has had an ongoing ripple effect.

I was told by the charities and professionals to be honest with the girls about what had happened – otherwise you will break their trust if they later find out the truth. The guides from Winston’s Wish encourage children to draw what they understand about suicide – the example pictures they give are distressing to see, but it shows that you must be direct so that they understand what has happened and so that you understand their emotional reaction.

I initially told Evie and Ada that Daddy’s brain wasn’t working, he wasn’t well and he died – and that was OK until they began to ask questions. Evie was 8 and Ada was 2, so they are inquisitive. Ada picked things up from being around conversations, but Evie had been aware he was missing and I had to say he was no longer missing. I had to say he had died and wasn’t coming back. About six weeks later, she asked how he died. When I explained, she was upset enough for me to know she understood – but she carried on.

That brutal honesty was key to making sure there was no confusion or unanswered questions. There is no way they can fill in their own gaps. Evie had all the information. And then you as the parent pick up the pieces.

 

Work became a safe space for me. I didn’t want to be in my house organising his funeral – choosing the coffin, deciding what he would wear. I did all that from the Alive office. I would sit there quietly at weekends, trying in my own way to process what had happened. I wanted to be around those people because they were my constant and were very grounding. They didn’t avoid what had happened. They let me talk about it, they let me sit at my desk crying, and there were no funny looks or awkwardness. I could feel normal.

Alan would take Evie on days out or play Lego with them at our house. Laura, one of our animators, would take the girls out for walks with the dogs and give Evie calligraphy lessons with Andy, a designer. They committed time and they cared. Those little things are beyond the expectations of your employer and your colleagues, and I will be eternally grateful

Now, two-and-a-half years later, it’s hard to talk about Steve or look at photos, which is what Evie wants to do. There aren’t many people she can talk to for memories about him, and it’s as if my brain has deleted 18 years. I understand that mental health is a disease. Steve was on that journey, but I firmly believe there could have been a moment when he stopped and said he needed help.

Ada is now developing a deeper understanding that her daddy is dead. We can be cooking, cleaning, watching TV, and she’ll suddenly say, “Daddy died, didn’t he? Is he in heaven?” – and then she’ll carry on playing, while I have to try and compose myself. I’m conscious that one day she’ll want to know more, and I’ll have to revisit the guidance books I’ve put away. It’s a prospect that fills me with anxiety and fear.

I don’t know why Steve did it. I will never know. There is so much stigma and so many unanswered questions.

I hadn’t believed there were any signs of Steve’s poor mental health, but some of what I have read since made me stop and think how he was quieter and had less energy. The week before in the pub with a friend, he had mentioned Gary Speed, the footballer who took his own life a few years previously. His friend thought it was odd at the time, but not the kind of thing that would trigger you to need to ask someone about their wellbeing.

 

There are days I don’t want to work. Ada might mention her daddy on the way to school and it takes my breath away – and then I have to come home and speak to clients, jump on Teams calls, carry on. My colleagues are intuitive. They are aware of painful anniversaries. I know I can step away and take a long walk if I need to – but that might not be possible for people in some roles.

We need to make people more aware that it’s a permanent thing – not just a moment in time. There’s no going back, and there is a lifelong impact on the people left behind. I didn’t sign up to be a single mum. It’s lonely and it’s hard work. When I redid my will, I realised that, if I die, my girls are left as orphans. The pressure to love them, provide a home and keep them safe keeps me awake at night.

Organisations skirt around suicide in their mental health programmes. Even the word “suicide” is often avoided. The more we talk about it at work, the less it becomes stigmatised. Think about how AIDS was transformed into a subject the world accepted. The same process needs to happen with suicide.

We need to think about the language we use and change the conversation. For example, I don’t think “mental health” is helpful. When I was younger, the word “mental” was used as an insult. “Employee Assistance Programme” could instead be something warmer, more accessible, something you want to engage with.

One of the charities used an interesting term – that Steve “chose not to be here anymore”, suggesting to me that it was a purposeful decision. I know there is a lot of talk about not using “committed suicide”, as if suicide is still a crime to commit, but “choosing not to be here anymore” softens it too much, I think.

 

I had PTSD therapy and I have a counsellor I see regularly. I read books about cognitive behavioural therapy practices and positive psychology. I watch webinars about grief and sadness. I didn’t like the idea of joining a bereavement group – I don’t want to be part of that kind of club. The girls went to support groups locally and I could see they felt less isolated when they spent time with other children who were going through the same thing.

I joined a Facebook group by Widowed And Young (WAY). You can pop in whenever you like and ask a question or throw in an angry feeling and it will be validated by others going through the same thing. I don’t mind that, as I have a choice in how and when I interact.

I’m trying to be positive and build my resilience in different ways. A friend and I text things we’re grateful for or feel positive about every day, and that helps.

I recently bumped into someone who Steve and I knew, but I hadn’t seen her for years. I had always considered her and her husband to be confident, happy and settled people; having moved to our local area, they knew very few people. She sent me a message that evening to say Steve and I had always made her feel welcome, and that I’d still done so that day, despite everything I’d been through. That gave me such a lift. We should all do more of that kind of thing. Be more vocal with our compliments. Be kinder and tell people they matter.

 

Caroline’s story was told to Rob Jones. Read our introduction to this series and guidelines for reporting and communicating about suicide.

And you can read our other stories on this topic:

Read Gordon's story: 'It is not a weakness to realise there is something wrong and to ask for help'

Read Kiera's story: 'It's vital students believe they are in an environment where they will be emotionally supported'

Read Andrew's story: 'Bring a sense of community into your culture and show you are interested in people'

Read Penny's story: 'Invite someone you have reason to beliueve may be struggling to open up about it'

Read Rachel's story: 'Managers are not counsellors, but our roles involve relevant skills'

Read Karen's story: 'Whatever we did had to be informed by insight and evidence'

 

Talk to someone if you need help

Samaritans is a registered charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. If you're having a difficult time, or you are worried about someone else, call 116 223 or visit samaritans.org

 

 

Work became a safe space. I wanted to be around colleagues because they were my constant and very grounding. They didn’t avoid what had happened.

CAROLINE ROODHOUSE

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