It was a cold day in January 2014 – the kind where your lungs burn as soon as you breathe the air. At the time, I was working close to home. Our friend Big Mike, a tall, hulky, teddy bear with an infectious laugh that rose from the depths of his stomach, asked to take a shower at our house.
Big Mike was one of our closest friends. So, we didn't think twice about the request. He stopped by around noon, when I was home for lunch, and took care of what he needed to do.
When he was ready to leave, he did something he never did before. He kissed me on the cheek and said, "Goodbye, I'll see you in 10 days."
Ten days later, my husband and I were attending his funeral.
Suicide hits you like a ton of bricks, especially when it happens to someone close to you. Your mind rewinds like a VCR tape and you playback every moment you had with that person trying to figure out what signs were there.
Mike always had been the guy with the outgoing, grab-life-by-the-horns personality. Nothing seemingly ever bothered him, and whatever was thrown at him, he took it in stride. However, like everyone else, he had his personal demons.
Just a year earlier, my husband and I had been spending three to four days a week with Mike. It wasn't a surprise to see him walk through the door at dinnertime. We always saved a seat for him.
When we weren't with him, we were texting about our upcoming plans. But slowly, over that year, something changed. Big Mike increasingly became distant. We just chalked it up to being busy with our jobs and family – my husband and I were enjoying our first year of marriage. We spent less time with Big Mike, but, at that time, it wasn't something that seemed concerning.
Big Mike attended our first year of marriage anniversary party in late September 2013. He was quiet, reserved and made an offhand comment to me about how he would never be married.
Again, something we didn't think twice about. Mike always was candid with us, or so we thought.
Just before Christmas, we saw a movie together. At one point, he was adamant about getting a group picture together with my husband and another of his close friends at the cigar shop.
We thought we knew about his personal struggles, but we didn't think we would wake up one cold, January morning to find a post from his brother announcing that Big Mike had died. After all, we spent so much time together. Big Mike and my husband spoke about going to Niagara Falls for their 30th birthdays, even though the milestone events were more than a year away. I had promised to give my dog Napoleon a crazy haircut if Mike earned As for the business classes he was taking.
Mental illness plagues the workplace and the home, and the numbers prove it. Mental Health America estimates that depression, when left untreated, costs $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs.
In a 2012 Forbes.com article, author Noch Noch Li identifies the following signs of depression or mental illness in the workplace:
- Increasing frequency of sick days
- Loss of motivation
- Changes in social behavior in the workplace
- Incomplete duties or tasks
- Fatigue, tiredness, excessive yawning
- Increasing number of absent days for other reasons
The reality is that many people who have thoughts about harming or killing themselves never seek help or try to hide it. For Big Mike, we knew that he had internal struggles, but, for reasons that we will never know, he wasn't fully open about it with us this time, and the best thing we could do was be there when he needed us whether it was providing a place to shower or a seat at the table.
In the safety profession, if the "you are your brother's keeper" adage rings true, then communicating, and getting to know your employees enough to recognize changes in behavior, educating them about the symptoms and encouraging someone to seek help should be a no-brainer. After all, many of us spend more time on a daily basis with our coworkers than we do with our families. So, being there when a worker is struggling internally is one of the best things you can do.