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Showing mercy and compassion to help prevent suicide

In this column, exclusive to HRNZ, Michael Hempseed discusses how 'toxic outrage culture' is negatively impacting mental health, and what HR professionals can do to support colleagues. Join Michael on Thursday 2:30-3:30pm (3 September) as he delivers a Suicide prevention for HR professionals webinar.


World Suicide Prevention Day is 10 September. There are many reasons why people die by suicide, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bullying, poor sleep, loneliness, knowing someone who died by suicide and more. There is no one cause and no one solution. I believe in the last few years, we have added another cause “outrage culture.” I think our toxic outrage culture is adding to our already alarming suicide statistics.


What is outrage culture?
It occurs when someone posts a poorly thought-out tweet, post on social media or says something stupid then they find themselves on the wrong end of a lynch mob.

Examples of this include the Garrick Tremain Samoa measles cartoon and the recent BBC reporter who used the N-word when quoting a suspect. Let me be clear these actions were not well thought out, and they caused offence. There are literally millions of things to get upset about. We need to choose our battles, the fact the pedophile Jimmy Saville was allowed to continue for years is a reason to get out into the streets and march, or that insulin in the US went from $1 in 1923 to $450 today. That is a reason to march in protest. Before we become outraged, we need to pick our battles.


What effect does outrage culture have on people?
I have spoken to several people who have been at the brunt of public outrage. They feel devastated, overwhelmed and even suicidal. Can you imagine what it would feel like to believe the entire world is against you? Even years later, some people still have panic attacks. We must remember the people who are the target of outrage culture are not demons. They are human beings, just like us all.

If we want to get serious about suicide prevention, we must stop this culture. Is it any wonder researchers believe we have the most stressed and anxious generation in history? If we live in fear of making the tiniest mistake, then we will obviously have high rates of anxiety. There is another tragic effect of outrage culture; it kills creativity, few people will be willing to say anything for fear of making a mistake.


What can you do?
Workplaces can model understanding and compassion. We need to be understanding and know that all of us have made mistakes, and none of us are perfect. Where is the culture of gently going up to someone and saying, “I felt offended when you said or did that.” In many situations, the person will happily apologise. Obviously, this does not apply to genuine cases of serious misconduct. We have lost the ability to talk to one another. Years of parents saying we will never argue in front of our children has left a generation with no skills to manage conflict. I recently read a great book called The Power of Discord by Edward Tronick and Claudia Gold. In their book they say healthy relationships grow when there is 30% conflict, without this we never improve, and we never grow. 

Leaders can model this in the workplace. They can model healthy ways to manage conflict. They can encourage people to address challenges by kindly talking to the person who offended them.

You can also pause before you attack someone on social media and gently correct those who are demanding resignations. I encourage you to think the next time you are upset with something on social media, ask yourself in the grand scheme of things, is this really an important issue? 

If someone is faced with an onslaught of public hatred, then suicidal thoughts can come easily, but if we show mercy and compassion, we can take an active role in reducing suicides within our culture.