Forty-seven thousand (47,173) Americans committed suicide in 2017. Another 1.3 million Americans attempted suicide. Suicide and self-injury cost the United States $69 billion annually. Of the multiple reasons why people kill themselves, one little-discussed fact is sometimes the career you love ends up contributing to physical and emotional sickness and to suicide.
According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), jobs requiring significant levels of aptitude, sacrifice, and education seem to be those with an above-average risk of suicide. The highest suicide rates among black females are typically found in “protective service” careers at a rate of 2.78 times the average. These careers include first responders (fire and police), hospital social workers, community-based multi-purpose agencies, counselors in schools and service agencies such as domestic violence shelters, and 24-hour crisis hot-lines.
Researchers have identified competition, health risks, instability, overworking, perfectionism, shift work, social isolation, and stress as reasons for protective service workers’ suicide. Desperate, hurting people come to them expecting the professional will resolve their deeply rooted problems in one or at most two sessions. Developing a plan of action, taking small steps, and working through issues is a hard concept to grasp when the clientele is desperate for a right-now solution. The insulted consumer demands to be reassigned to “someone who knows something.”
These specialists suck-up their personal dysfunction, money problems, and grief to address the consumers’ concerns according to the agency guidelines. Based on experience, protective service workers learn there are no silver bullets. Textbook solutions or agency policy dictates do not always produce the desired outcomes. Their stress levels, helplessness, and their hopelessness are compounded by individual and professional challenges. Imagine how a protective services worker’s day might unfold:
- The school social worker lectures parents on how to deal with their out-of-control teen. None of the strategies she’s recommending have worked on her out-of-control drug-abusing son. The police brought him home twice in deference to her. Yesterday, they warned her: the next violation, and he goes to jail.
- The housing counselor took personal leave to witness the auction selling her home. She could not cover the cost of the mortgage based on her salary alone. Her ex refuses to pay court-ordered child support. His anger at her has spilled over onto the children’s safety and housing. She has to vacate the premises in thirty days.
- The oncologist’s wife has Stage IV lung cancer and six months of life expectancy. He’s also expected to give 110% to every patient’s treatment plan who’s fighting to survive their cancer diagnosis.
Protective service workers can become numb to the pain they absorb daily. Almost forty years ago, I was directing an agency when one of the counselors committed suicide. She believed a required review her of client files was going to result in her being fired for doing substandard work. She thought her husband was having an extramarital affair. They were living above their means, and without a job, she would lose the things they’d accumulated. Yes, she was depressed. Yes, she was receiving treatment. The things she shared with co-workers masked the overwhelming despair she felt.
The other staff and I processed the tragedy with the help of a crisis counselor. Staff members recounted incidents and information she’d shared with each of them. We pieced together a picture of the psychic pain she endured and a timeline for her decision to end her life. We determined that as long as she was talking, there was room for help. It was when she stopped talking about her problems that she was ready to let go and she took the final step.
Suicide impacts everyone in the person’s orbit. We asked ourselves, “What more could we have done?” Because our clients were so needy, we leaned on each other for support. We were team players and spent time together outside of the office. The rule was: if another staff member tells you something in confidence, be supportive, but don’t spread their business.
Years later, I sought professional help to deal with job-related stress. For 18-months I worked with the skilled professional allowed me to gain insight into my jumbled thoughts, negative or self-defeating behaviors, and self-doubt that kept me from functioning at my best self. There was a role for well-meaning family and friends, but they were not a substitute for a professional therapist.
My message to you!! Don’t neglect your mental health. Our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health statuses must be aligned for us to fulfill our passions.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.