Uniting employers in the fight against suicide: the Workplace Pledge

3 minute read

Despite the enticing promises of technology to reconnect us with those we've lost, journalist Mike McCarthy believes we should instead focus on the tangible mission to combat the rising tide of suicides. He shares his personal tragedy – the suicide of his 31-year-old son – and calls on employers to help reduce suicide statistics by signing a new Workplace Pledge

Mike McCarthy holding the Baton of Hope

In a world moving relentlessly towards the virtual I am about to speak publicly on a subject that is all too real and raw.

No altered reality can help me. No amount of AI can rescue me from the authentic pain.  The reason for my soon to be delivered address is directly connected to my beloved son Ross. He took his life aged 31.

Even I as a journalist still struggle, three years on, to find words adequate enough to describe the profound trauma of losing him.  

Recently I was drawn to an online article about so-called ‘live forever’ technology that would “put us in touch” with the loved ones we have lost via digital avatars who simulate a person's voice, mannerisms and movements. You might think I would yearn for such digital immortality; the chance once more to speak and laugh with my warm, caring and funny son but no amount of tech wizardry will tempt me down that road. 

But although it instinctively makes me feel uneasy, I don’t condemn the idea of it; in the same way a psychic may offer comfort to some I believe that this may offer solace to a minority – but not for me. Either way you can only hope that such a “service” would be controlled and designed to both protect and heal the users. Recent history though shows that tech giants have been painfully slow to eradicate some of the darkest and most dangerous websites. Attempts to protect children in particular from page after page of material promoting suicide have been met with despicable resistance.

Here are some of the statistics:

  •  1.2m Internet searches ways to take your own life every month.
  • Harmful internet use was found in 26% of deaths in under 20s and 13% of deaths in 20 – 24-year-olds – Samaritans.
  • 59% of 14 – 24-year-olds reporting being exposed to suicide related content through the internet and social media.

When I consider the magnitude of suicide in the UK it makes me feel that we are living in some alien world where people are dying around us and yet we choose to either accept is as “collateral damage” or even to ignore it. What will it take for us to recognise that it is the biggest killer of men under 50 and women under 35? When will we truly take notice of the fact that suicide statistics in the UK have stagnated for more than 15 years?

In the hours before my son took his life he wrote a long farewell letter to his family. By this stage he had suffered from severe depression for more than 10 years and when he had asked for therapy he had been put on a six-month-long waiting list. Anybody who has ever suffered depression will kin ow that it can’t be put on hold for six months.  Ross died two weeks into the wait.

One of the many phrases in Ross’s letter that pierced my soul was: “Please fight for mental health. The support is just not there.” Several weeks later when I could start to process the contents of the letter I realised that I simply could not fail to honour his request. He had recognised that there was a cause to be championed for others in a world that he would not be part of…and yet some people still refer to suicide as a selfish act.

I started to make contact with others bereaved by suicide including a man called Steve Phillip whose son Jordan had taken his life just over a year before Ross. Although we had never met before there was something about the tragic parallels in our lives that created an instant bond. Over our first coffee the conversation turned to what we could do as bereaved dads and we came to the realisation that despite the often complex circumstances surrounding suicide there was one common denominator – the evaporation of hope.

In one of those turn of events that fees like fate, one company got to hear of our dream of establishing an international symbol of hope that might galvanise society and encourage everyone to understand that we are all capable of generating hope. That company was none other than Thomas Lyte – goldsmiths and silversmiths to the late Queen Elizabeth II. In an unforgettable act of generosity, they offered to design and craft the exquisite Baton Of Hope. Adorned with symbolic imagery the Baton has already been put to good use and has been passed between a thousand pairs of hands in a 12-city tour of the UK.

A physical icon, beautiful and inspiring though it is, is one thing (thousands of supporters greeted the Baton and engaged with it in a way we could never have imagined) but from its inception the suicide prevention charity that bears its name was determined from the outset that awareness would always be accompanied by practical measures to reduce suicide statistics.

The Workplace Pledge is a major step forward in promoting such action. The pledge is the first in a series of ‘charters’ to help different sectors of society understand how suicide prevention is everyone’s business. Tragically no-one has immunity.

We are asking employers to:

  1. Prioritise suicide awareness, prevention and support in the workplace.
  2. Provide clear messaging on suicide in communications and training.
  3. Offer suicide prevention resources and early intervention support.
  4. Champion those with lived experience of mental health challenges.
  5. Promote crisis services and support resources.
  6. Actively spread the message of the pledge to amplify its impact.

At a national conference to be held in Sheffield on 16 May (during Mental Health Awareness Week) it will be my privilege and honour to introduce the Workplace Pledge for employers. We hope it will become a kitemark of best practice when it comes to suicide prevention.

Not only will I feel that I am honouring one of my son’s dying wishes, but I hope I can help to give voice to all the countless thousands no longer here to use their own. I hope that people across the country will support our charity Baton Of Hope UK in challenging the woeful status quo and unite the nation in standing up to a killer that has gone largely overlooked and unspoken.

I believe it is time to smash the stigma, break the silence and finally make suicide prevention everyone’s business.

Mike McCarthy is co-founder of Baton Of Hope UK

Published 10 May 2024
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