with workplace commentary by Sandra Turner, Ph.D
In the early morning hours on March 29, 1999, our son Keith died by suicide.
Keith suffered from depression caused by the stress he experienced in his place of work—a company where he had worked for only a short seven months of his life.
Growing up, Keith was full of life; he was a boy who was always able to conquer anything he set his mind to do. Keith’s zest for life was evident even as a young boy on the ice—trying his new skates when he was not quite three years old. Keith started playing hockey after our family moved to Pittsburgh, and he received many trophies for his achievements as an outstanding defensive hockey player. When he was only fourteen years old, Keith made the selective team of “The Junior Penguins.” Then, after our family’s move to Illinois, Keith made his new school’s junior varsity team, and he realized how competitive the hockey teams were in Chicago. Keith would tell us later that it was hard for him to face the realization that he wasn’t the “best” hockey player and that he wouldn’t be able to receive a college scholarship for hockey as he had hoped. In spite of this disappointment, however, Keith took it in stride and made others realize how much he loved to be on the ice. Keith not only continued to participate in hockey, but also took on a job as an ice rink guard, and, he taught many young boys how to skate and enjoy the ice.
Keith loved being outdoors. He was happiest when a group of boys got their fishing rods and went to fish in a nearby stream. Keith’s biology teacher in high school had a group of boys get together after school to learn how to tie flies, and that is when Keith started his love of fly-fishing. He was the perfect fly fisherman; he was patient, and learned the perfect conditions for catching each type of fish and for using each type of fly. Keith was happiest when he could find a stream and cast his fly rod. A couple of days before Keith died, he was trying to find that peace again by fishing in Minnesota.
It was his love of the outdoors that made Keith decide early on that he wanted to major in biology when he went to college. During one summer break, Keith received a grant for heart research and worked with some of the top heart surgeons in the Cleveland area. Keith was now thinking about becoming a doctor; however, that would eventually change. He was always interested in the latest research on the heart—perhaps because Keith’s grandfather suffered from congestive heart disease.
Keith attended UCLA, and in his freshman year, he tried out for the crew team—having never rowed a boat in his life! Yet, he made the “first boat” at UCLA, and then that team came in sixth place in the USA college teams. Keith never boasted about his achievements; he just accepted it all as a part of his philosophy: Work hard, and you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.
Keith was not only an athlete, but he was popular, worked on social causes, and joined a fraternity at UCLA. It was at his fraternity house that Keith had a life-threatening accident during his senior year. Trying to climb into his fraternity house window because he didn’t have a key to his new room, Keith slipped and took a terrible fall. He fell thirty-eight feet onto the concrete below and broke many bones in his body—never losing consciousness. As a result, Keith had to endure many surgeries and went through months of rehabilitation. However, throughout this ordeal, Keith always believed that he would be able to pull himself back to where he was before the fall. Thankfully, Keith did recover, and he graduated from UCLA; he was then able to look for a job.
Keith applied for jobs after graduation and took a job as a drug representative with a pharmaceutical company. He became an expert on the drugs he was selling and became very successful on his job. He met doctors on a social and a professional level; he became friends with the nurses and doctors. He also would later enjoy hiking with a group of doctors.
After three years working with the pharmaceutical company, Keith knew he wanted to do more, so he decided to apply to graduate school. Once he decided to go to graduate school, his next goal was to attend graduate school only if he could get into one of the “top ten” graduate schools. True to form, Keith was accepted at many prestigious graduate schools, but he decided to attend The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University because of its reputation of being the best. So, Keith left Las Vegas with all his belongings and moved to Illinois. Now he would have to apply for school loans and scholarships and begin the stressful life as a graduate student.
Keith worked very hard at Northwestern and—because of his successes—was recruited by many companies. Keith wanted to work for a company that had a young staff—a company where he could work himself up to the top quickly. He decided to accept a job offered to him by a company in Minneapolis; he felt this company offered him exactly what he wanted. At the time this company offered him his position, they also offered him a signing bonus: If he decided to quit his job before his first year was completed, he would have to pay back the bonus, and he would be unable to work for a competing company. Later, we learned that there was high turn-over at Keith’s company which prompted the inclusion of these elements in the employment contract. This employment contract established the parameters of the trap from which Keith did not emerge.
Keith’s new position was an “Associate in New Product Planning,” and he was very well prepared for that job. Unfortunately, he was not able to foresee the amount of pressure he would soon face: He was given unrealistic expectations and unachievable deadlines. Keith received very limited support from his manager; and thus, Keith found himself working in a management vacuum. Keith was overloaded with work—but he tried his best. Seeing a good, responsible, cooperative employee in Keith…management increased his responsibilities. The company did not have a mentoring program for new employees, and there was no one there for Keith to confide in.
Keith was asked to perform a job that he simply was not qualified to do. He was overwhelmed in trying to comprehend material that was presented to him. So, after working long hours in the office, Keith would then go home to study for four to six hours a night—trying to understand the material. Even though Keith tried his best to persevere, due to all the circumstances involved, it became impossible for him to cope.
In one of the phone conversations I had with Keith before he died, he expressed to me that he hadn’t been sleeping. He also told me that he was worried about the project that he was given. He didn’t think he had the knowledge necessary to be able to complete the assignment. The last time we saw Keith, he had lost a lot of weight, but I did not think much about it at the time because he was training to run a marathon. Now, in retrospect, I wish I had recognized those changes as signs of depression.
The very day he was to present his marketing plan to his company, Keith did not show up for work. Keith could not understand how to stop the thoughts of helplessness. Keith’s not sleeping and not eating made things even worse. Then, the last straw occurred; he could not hold on any longer. At that time, Keith was not choosing to end his life, but escaping from the unreasonable expectations and pressures of his job. So, in the early hours of the next morning, Keith ended his life.
One might ask: When his job was not working out, why didn’t he just quit? The answer? Keith could not reason his way out of it. Hopelessness and despair are common emotions of suicide, and he couldn’t see the future clearly. He felt trapped by his circumstances, and—perhaps most importantly—Keith took personal responsibility for what was a company failure.
Could Keith’s valuable life have been saved if this company had a mentoring program for young new hires? Conducted its work in teams? Fostered a culture where questions and concerns were welcomed? Offered an employee assistance program? Hired an employee advocate? These questions are posed to challenge the status quo at many organizations and to encourage safety in the workplace through mutual responsibility among employees, co-workers, and management. Issues of safety and risk management should not be limited to focusing on environmental hazards, but should include a focus on the health and well-being of employees in the workplace. Health can be defined as physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual. Companies now have differing approaches to dealing with these matters, but progressive work environments consider all aspects of the human condition as they plan for safety and risk management.
The night before he died, Keith had renewed his subscription to his fishing magazine—certainly not the action of one who would soon “choose” to end his life. However, in those sleepless hours of that early morning, Keith had the impulse to end his depression. Keith was a hunter as well as a fisherman, and the gun was just there. Yes, this is where Keith’s story ends, after seven months of trying, Keith was ultimately unable to overcome the depression that shrouded him because of the stress he faced in his workplace.
No, Keith did not want to die—he simply just wanted to end his pain caused by depression. If he could have found any other way to stop the pain, he would have; but, because he could not find a way to stop the pain, he became hopeless. His hopelessness caused him to seek the only solution—by suicide.