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Show 159 – Suicide Prevention – How employers can provide mental health support to their staff

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On the latest episode of the csuite Podcast Graham Barrett is joined by Alice Hendy, Founder of R;pple Suicide Prevention to discuss mental health in the workplace and to encourage employers to introduce new measures to provide support to their staff and ultimately save lives.

How the idea of R;pple came about

Alice has a background in I.T. and cybersecurity. Her life was going well and then on the 25th of November 2020, her life changed forever because she received a knock at the door from the police to tell her that they’d found her brother and that he had taken his own life. Her world was turned upside down. When she received Josh’s phone and his laptop back from the police because of her interest in IT and cybersecurity, she became quite obsessed with wanting to go through those devices so she could see what could have been so bad that Josh thought that was his only option and his only way out. When she went through both of those devices, she was just completely horrified. Not only was Josh looking at ways and means to go about ending his life through online searches, but he was even provided with tips, encouragement, even pain scales for each method to help him make a decision. And it was exactly a month after she lost her brother that she sat in her parent’s living room and said, ‘I’ve got to do something’. She had to try to stop this happening to any other families. And it was there that she came up with this idea of ‘R;pple’. R;pple is effectively a piece of technology. And once downloaded, if somebody was to conduct a similar search relating to self-harm or suicide, R;pple would intercept that search and instead provide that person with a message of hope that things would get better and signpost them to a selection of different mental health resources that they can access both now and in the longer term.

It was Alice’s way of grieving and it continues to be her way of grieving. Everybody grieves in different ways. Hers is to go into action mode and try to ensure this doesn’t happen to other families. Because her family are living through this every day, and she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy. So, if she can stop this happening and stop other people feeling as low as her brother was feeling and getting support before it’s too late, and if she can stop other sisters waking up in the morning and feeling how she feels, then it can only be a positive in really memory and legacy of her brother. The logo has as a semicolon, as the i, because in a sentence, a semicolon would indicate that the sentence isn’t over. There’s more to come in life. The semicolon is now an international symbol of surviving suicide because it indicates that your life isn’t over and to keep going. It’s also called R;pple because every time somebody ends their life on average, 137 people are impacted. There’s a huge ripple effect.

Organisational goals

Alice describes the organisation as being ‘a bit of a beast’ She had no idea it would grow to this level. With full time staff working for the charity. In terms of what they want to achieve, the main goal is to interrupt and intercept anybody online conducting harmful searches and instead get them to the support that they clearly need. If they’re doing searches of that nature, that’s the first thing. They’ve gone global now, so looking to expand that. So, R;pple is available not only in the UK but also in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, South Africa. And expanding that to reach the vast majority of the countries in the world. They’re also looking to expand R;pple so that they are getting people the support that they need for different conditions. So not only self-harm and suicidal ideation, but actually eating disorders, alcohol abuse, gambling abuse, domestic abuse, they’re all serious, serious things. And actually, they can contribute and lead somebody to self-harm or take their life. So, it really is quite intertwined. So, they are looking expanding their service to be able to offer support to people for all, a whole range of different conditions as well.

How does the technology work?

Alice was lucky enough to be invited onto BBC Breakfast to talk about her idea, and at that time it really was an idea. There was nothing to show for it. She knew what she wanted to do she just wasn’t sure how to get there and she was open to ideas. So, on BBC Breakfast she was doing her interview and a gentleman called David Savage, who works at a software development company in London called Blue Tea, was, as he described, eating his Coco Pops on the sofa. Watching her interview, he got in touch with Alice, and said, ‘I think I know what you want to do, and I think I can help you get there’. So, the fact is R;pple would not exist without him. He is now a trustee of the charity and a close family friend of Alice’s. He and his team have developed R;pple as a browser extension, a plug in, effectively, that you could download very easily for free right now if you wanted to.

There are now over 850,000 downloads of R;pple. They’ve intercepted over three and a half thousand genuine online harmful searches. So, these are people, this isn’t searches for mental health or wellbeing. These are really crisis searches. And although they don’t track or monitor any personally identifiable information whatsoever, they have actually had 24 individuals approach them directly, either through the website, email or social media to tell them that they are still here because R;pple intercepted them at their most vulnerable point. And it’s that statistic that keeps Alice going.

Who do R;pple target?

The vast majority of organizations who have taken out, taken up repo and deployed it are schools, colleges, universities, because it’s free. They could download it on mass to thousands of machines at once if they wanted to. And many of them have taken that up as an extra layer of protection to put in place for their students. It can also be downloaded by parents, guardians, charities, again, all for free. But what Alice is really trying to shine a light on this year in preparation for World Suicide Prevention Day is actually to businesses because they have a responsibility to protect their staff and ensure that they’ve got processes in place to ensure that their team members can get the support that they need if they are experiencing suicidal ideation.

The Pandemic’s impact

Alicesgoes as far to say that this is a pandemic in itself. Mental health is its own pandemic. There is a massive problem. Alice says: ‘I’m really urging everybody who’s listening to this to do is please, please do not wait for a suicide to happen in your organization before you do something. It’s essential that you put processes in place to help people before it gets to that point. Don’t be reactive. You need to be proactive here’.

How other countries are comparing

A lot of countries are behind the UK however there is still a lot of work to be done.One of the countries who is leading the way in mental health and suicide prevention is Australia, followed very closely by New Zealand. Some collaborative work between those countries would be really beneficial. The stigma is very slowly breaking down. More light is being shone on mental health and suicide prevention, but unfortunately there is still a long, long way to go and Alice wants to be changing people’s minds, perceptions and the language that they use surrounding the topic as well.

Australia/ New Zealandembed it into workplaces which is a key priority of theirs. The charities out there are fantastic and, but they really go above and beyond. Over in Australia they’ve got laws, regulations and so on that Alice thinks we could probably learn a lot from.

Graham suggested the idea of a starter pack which comes along when you begin a new job for employees to know where they ca go for support. And Alice agreed that this is the type of thing that organisations need to be implementing in the workplace as part of an induction from day one.

The stigma around mental Health

There is still a big stigma surrounding the topic and there is a worry about being seen as weak particular if you are identifying as male. The persona of being strong and not talking about any worries in fear of being seen as weak. There’s also a risk that you might perceive that people will think you’re incompetent if you’re struggling with your mental health. Again, not the case. What colleagues might think of them. Again, not the case. There’s all of this stigma and worry surrounding the topic and the fact is here, if you are brave enough and have enough courage to actually stand up and say ‘I’m struggling here and I need some support’ that is a huge strength and not a weakness. And it should be celebrated, and those people should be provided with all of the mental health support that they possibly can need, as well as the backing and the support of their line managers.

Warning signs to look out for

Employees which may seem subdued, missing deadlines, not engaged with team members and therefore isolating themselves. Employees who might be avoiding the office and wanting to stay at home all of the time, being late when they begin work, their quality of work is not up to their usual standard. There can be many signs but also physically if you notice someone is putting on a lot of weight, losing a lot of weight or their hygiene levels have dropped can all be signs of someone who is struggling. Alice looks back now and realises that these signs where present in her brother so understands the importance of people educating themselves.

Hybrid/remote working and mental health

Hybrid working and flexible working is fantastic for many people, but it can isolate people as well, so giving people the choice is very important. If they want to come into work and socialise with colleagues in an office environment, give them that opportunity but equally if they enjoy work life balance at home keep it that way.  It is important that you’re checking in with your staff. Don’t just leave them because you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. And it’s just worth that extra half an hour a week to check in with them and say how’s it all going? Is everything okay?

Which goes back to the plug in, it can help from either scenario if you are at home or in the office. Installing the software is vital for employers at a cost of £0.25 an employee with every penny going back to R;pple as a suicide prevention charity so that they can continue doing the work that they do. So, businesses listening to this, hopefully would be thinking you can’t really put a price on that and just get it in to support colleagues. Because the fact is here you just don’t know what they might be thinking and what they might be doing.

Alice has had comments saying, ‘ we don’t have anybody who struggles with their mental health in the workplace’. But no one does know that . If somebody is in crisis and wanting to end their life and searching for how to end their life, do you honestly think that they’re going to be thinking, what computer their doing this on? Because from their perspective, they’re not going to be here to experience the consequences of that. This can happen absolutely at work and they have seen this. It comes as a shock to organisations when they tell them how many triggers there has been in their organisation.

The next steps

There are so many other things that employers can do within the workplace to support their staff. So flexible working hours or meeting free time. Alice’s organization has introduced meeting free time and it has gone down well. It’s an opportunity for people to really crack on with any outstanding work that they’ve got without being interrupted, and it helps them meet deadlines easier. Another being embed mental health first aiders across the workplace. Alice recently has been on the Mental Health First Aid course. She believes everybody should go on this course as it is such an eye opener. If you have mental health first aiders across your workplace, they are people that members of your teams and your staff can go to if they are struggling, and that person is trained and equipped to provide you with all of the support, resources, guidance and advice that they need to improve their situation. It’s hugely important. There’s a whole host of courses that you can go on. You can even go on them through R;pple. They’ve partnered with an organization called Mind Canyon and Steve Carr, who is a trainer. Alice explains ‘He’s absolutely the most inspirational person I think I’ve ever met in my life’. And he donates some of his course fees back to our charity so they can help put you on these free courses. But they’re a key part of any organization now, and they should be everywhere.

What can businesses do today?

Line managers need to have an awareness of what mental health is and what the signs are to look out for. Going on that course themselves is quite crucial as well. And changing the language in the workplace is really important. Terms like committed suicide need to stop. Committed suicide indicates that it was a crime, and it hasn’t been a crime since the 1960s. You don’t say committed cancer or committed a stroke, and therefore we should not say committed suicide. Instead, we should be using terms like died by suicide or took their own life. Mental health should be embedded deeply into workplace policies and procedures. It’s absolutely critical now. It’s a crucial part of a workforce, to make sure that there are policies, procedures, guidance in place for anybody who’s struggling out there. And of course, download the technology.

Future plans

With the plug in, it probably goes back to expanding the service so that they’re covering different struggles of people. So, whether that be alcohol abuse, gambling abuse, domestic abuse and so on. Expand R;pple to have that capability of intercepting any searches that are harmful in nature relating to those topics and instead signposting them to support that’s relevant to that particular search. They update the software on a fairly regular basis with the latest terms, questions and so on that come to the front of mind. It’s intercepting people on a daily basis and saving lives. And that can only be a good thing to put an extra layer of protection in place for your staff.

Alice would like employers to become more understanding, acknowledge the fact that mental health is an illness and people need to be supported to look out for the signs that are evidence of somebody struggling and have that awareness of where they can direct people to get support and show kindness and empathy towards that person in order to help them through whatever it is they might be going through. Also, to see mental health on par with other policies and procedures that are in place in the workplace like fire safety or first aid and by doing this you are telling everybody how important mental health is to you and your organization.

How to set up and use R;pple

Website: ripplesuicideprevention.com.

Email address: info@ripplesuicideprevention.com.

Social media: ripplesuicideprevention

Please reach out. Don’t let this something like this happen in your organization before you do something. Minimal pence to purchase which isn’t a drop in the ocean for your organization and will help R;pple to continue to save lives as a charity. Even parents please go home and download this on your personal computers for free as you never know what your kids may be looking for online. It is important everyone is getting the support they need.