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MHFA England calls on employers to end suicide stigma

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has called on employers to help end the silence and stigma around discussing suicide at work to help improve suicide prevention.

Despite evidence showing asking direct questions about a person’s intent to take their own life can help prevent suicide, new data published by the MHFA training provider has found a third (33%) of UK workers believed that asking about it can put the idea in someone’s head.

One in 10 (13%) of the 2,000 employees surveyed said they know asking a colleague whether they have a plan to end their life is the right thing to do when they are concerned about their mental health, yet nearly 40% said they did not know to do that.

Simon Blake, chief executive at MHFA England, said: “The stigma and silence surrounding suicide is harmful. To prevent deaths by suicide, we must do everything we can to eliminate stigma. 

“Workplaces can help prevent suicides through awareness raising, education and ensuring support. Many people experiencing a suicide crisis are in workplaces day in, day out.”

Read more: Suicide prevention charter for employers presented to parliament

To help employers tackle suicide stigma, MHFA England and the National Centre for Suicide Prevention Education and Training (NCSPET) have developed dedicated suicide first aid training for workplaces.

NHS Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Integrated Care Board has already started running the training and has 31 employees trained in suicide first aid skills and awareness, alongside 32 trained in MHFA.

Head of people, OD and inclusion Caroline Nokes-Lawrence urged other employers to do the same.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “My advice to employers would be to treat suicide first aid training as an extended part of your wider wellbeing agenda to support staff at all levels. 

“The training has built upon the skills of our trained MHFA workers and others.

“We are thrilled that our workforce know how to access support and signposting for their health and wellbeing, in addition to traditional support through occupational health or employee assistance programmes.”

MHFA training has proved popular in UK workplaces and MHFA England has reported providing consultancy and training to over 20,000 workplaces.

A 2018 review of MHFA conducted by the Health and Safety Executive however found that while MHFA training did raise employees’ awareness of mental ill-health conditions, there was little evidence to show it helped to improve overall organisational management of mental health in workplaces.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has also raised concerns about the evidence base for MHFA training.

A holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing is therefore often advised to ensure MHFA is not used as a quick fix.

IES senior research fellow Zofia Bajorek said being able to broach the subject of suicide in the workplace is a very important issue and the use of first aid training is one of the avenues that can help organisations with that conversation. 

However, she added: "It should not be seen as a siloed intervention, and should be introduced as part of a suite of wellbeing interventions to help develop positive wellbeing cultures and psychologically safe workplaces where people feel able to disclose any mental health concerns they may be having without fear of any negative repercussions, and with the understanding that they will be treated with compassion, care and signposted to further services who can also provide support."

Training should be extended to all colleagues, including HR leaders who can be the first port of call for employee wellbeing concerns. 

She added: "The more awareness of help and support available should hopefully begin to de-stigmatise mental ill-health, and provide individuals with the confidence that they will be listened to at work."

If someone is at immediate risk of attempting suicide, dial 999. If someone is having thoughts of suicide encourage them to call Samaritans on 116 123.

MHFA England research quoted in this article was undertaken by One Poll between 28 July and 7 August 2023 with a nationally representative sample of 2,000 working UK adults.