My boss "jokes" about suicide. What can I do?

My boss "jokes" about suicide. What can I do?

My boss "jokes" about suicide. What can I do?

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 4 2008 6:54 AM

Career Suicide

My boss keeps "joking" about killing herself. How can I intervene?

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Emily Yoffe recently chatted online to give advice on readers' holiday-related quandaries. Read the transcript.

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Dear Prudence:
I work in a small company of about 30 employees. My co-workers and I don't know what to do about our boss. Our company is in serious financial trouble. I make up the entire accounts payable/receivable department, and if it hadn't been for a big check we received from a company that owed us, we wouldn't have been able to send out our last payroll checks. I'm really worried about our boss' suicide "jokes." She frequently will jokingly ask me or another of my co-workers for a gun or a knife. She even crawled onto the windowsill in my office and had her bottom half hanging out until I grabbed her and pulled her back in. I told her recently that I was not going to take these questions as jokes anymore and that the next time she mentioned a gun or knife, I was going to call the suicide hot line. Her response was to walk over to my phone and say sarcastically, "Sure, let's do it now! I'll dial, you talk." She later came back and said, "I hope you know I'm never serious about that." One co-worker suggested we try to convince her brother to admit her to a psychiatric ward. But unfortunately she is the sole decision-maker regarding practically everything we do, so without her, I don't even know how we'd be able to run on a day-to-day basis. What should I do?

—Concerned Employee

Dear Concerned,
A lot of people these days are feeling as if they need to be talked in from the ledge. However, if this is no longer a metaphor and you are bodily pulling your boss in from an open window, then you've got a crisis that's more than economic. I talked to Dr. Richard McKeon, a suicide prevention expert at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He said the fact that your boss dismisses this talk as a "joke" doesn't mean that she's not seriously contemplating taking her own life. He said the majority of people who commit suicide discuss it first. Many also make what look like half-hearted attempts, but these can be a way of getting used to the idea of the real thing. So your boss is on an alarming trajectory. She needs to get a suicide risk assessment from a qualified mental health professional. Maybe she needs immediate hospitalization, or perhaps medication and therapy would allow her to better function through this crisis. Your co-worker is right—you need to enlist her family. If they won't take action, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK. Explain your situation, and they will refer you to help in your area. It also sounds like it's time for all of you to face the painful reality that no matter what your boss's condition, it looks as if the company might be terminal.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
Earlier this year, a person in my husband's family stole money from me. It wasn't a large amount of money, but I still felt rather violated, and so did my husband. I have a hunch about who did it, although all of the family members present at the time, of course, said they did not do it. After it happened, I approached the entire family and told them how hurt I was and how I could no longer trust any of them. Well, the holidays are approaching, and that means spending time with both of our families again. My husband is telling me to just get over this and stop holding a grudge, but I'm still very hurt. I do love his family, but how can I put something as big as this aside and put on a happy face when I just don't feel it in my heart?

—Robbed

Dear Robbed,
I'm afraid family gatherings aren't Agatha Christie novels in which you can get everyone into the drawing room and interrogate the suspects one by one: "And you, Aunt Myrna, you said you were getting more punch, but I distinctly saw you take a route that brought you in the vicinity of my purse, which was nowhere near the punch bowl!" You say you think you know who did it. So unless there was a familywide conspiracy to lighten your wallet, it's unclear why you can no longer trust all the other people who honestly responded to your grilling by denying they were the culprit. Your husband is right; you must let this go—completely and now. Since your family may harbor a pickpocket, at your next holiday gathering, leave your wallet in your car's glove compartment. And however tempting it may be, do not wear a fanny pack to Christmas dinner.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I'm a woman in my early 20s afflicted with severe acne. It has gotten worse rather than better as I've grown older and has shown no significant response to treatment. I lack the resources to pursue further treatment and have accepted my condition and the social limitations it imposes. Often people "reach out" to me and remind me that "it could be worse"—mentioning friends who remain cheerful despite cancer or being in a wheelchair. In addition, strangers approach me in the street to share miracle cures or to ask me if I've tried this or that treatment. At other times, they compliment my eyes or my clothes. I find these experiences to be extremely painful and humiliating and am often at a loss for words. Keep in mind that I do not broadcast the pain my acne causes me; I try to dress, behave, and interact in a "normal" manner. I'm introverted, but that is a result of the immense stigma and humiliation associated with my condition. Naturally, I ignore negative reactions to my acne, but what is an appropriate way to respond to the unsolicited pity and "cheering up" of would-be Samaritans?

—Painfully Aware

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Dear Painfully,
I wouldn't come up to you on the street to discuss your skin, but I'm glad you've written to me because I'm one of those people who wants to tell you there is no reason for you to walk around with acne so disfiguring that strangers do approach you with advice. You need a new dermatologist right away. Call your nearest medical school or teaching hospital and ask for recommendations of dermatologists who have a special interest in acne. There are many treatments available, and just because what you've tried so far didn't work, that doesn't mean another regimen won't succeed. Although insurance varies, treatment of acne should be covered by many policies. If you lack insurance, discuss a payment plan with your new doctor. This is an investment in your happiness and mental health that you must make. You may even be eligible for a clinical trial, which would mean you aren't charged for your treatment. As for what to do in the meantime when people talk to you about this: If they offer treatment advice, thank them and say you're getting medical care. If they tell you how much worse it could be, agree there are many people who courageously face terrible illness, then change the subject. And if they compliment you on your eyes or clothes, smile and say, "Thanks."

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I'm 28 and childless, as are my closest friends. The only one in our small group to have a child so far is my older sister. We all love my niece dearly and think of her as our baby. The problem is, my sister expects us to be there for everything involving her child. She hasn't made an effort to befriend other mothers; she just expects us to join her for whatever they do. While I love them both, I have no desire to watch Big Bird sing and dance onstage. (Yes, she actually requested my presence at a live production of Sesame Street.) My niece is 4, and so far all of her birthday parties have consisted of about 15 adults and no other children. Last year I pointed out how odd this seemed, and my sister said she just didn't have room for a bunch of kids at her house. I told her maybe there would be more room if all of her friends weren't there instead. She blew me off. So my question is, am I off base in thinking this is not normal? Am I a horrible auntie if I stop participating in these things? She's told me it's my obligation to go to my niece's birthday parties, and one is coming up next month. Is this true? At what point does this change?

—Sesamed Out

Dear Sesamed,
In exchange for the delirious joys of parenthood—the hugs, the smiles, the exultations of "I love you, Mommy!"—one must endure Sesame Street Live and other cultural assaults. Obviously, in your capacity as loving auntie you will want to take your niece to an occasional event or join your sister for an outing, but you are not obligated to have your social calendar revolve around the needs of a 4-year-old. You were right to bring this up with your sister once, but since she didn't respond, and nothing has changed in the year since, you have to have a more serious talk with her. There is something off if she considers having "a bunch of kids" to the house an imposition. Gently probe what's going on with her, and tell her you're concerned that by this point she—and her daughter—haven't found a group of friends. If your niece is not in nursery school, she should be. It would help her make connections with other children and your sister with other mothers. And as for the endless rounds of socializing you sister demands, start learning to say, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I have other plans."

—Prudie

Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.