April 24, 2017

Deaths of Despair: Employers Can Help


Health leaders are calling for targeting services at males through innovative approaches.

Photo Courtesy of Pexels

Recent headlines report an upward trend in “deaths of despair” among middle-aged, white (non-Hispanic) men, most with less than a college education. For the past 100 years, life expectancy has been increasing, but, among this group, that trend suddenly went into reverse.

The explanation that Princeton University economists give includes an increase in suicide, overdoses (mostly from prescription drugs) and liver disease related to alcoholism. When they dug a bit deeper, they found these deaths of despair were related to a reduction of labor force participation, marriage rates and involvement in faith communities — a loss of status, purpose, community — a classic perfect storm of risk for suicide and addiction. National statistics tell us that men die by suicide at a much higher rate than women and that, unless we as a country make significant efforts to prevent suicide among this age group, suicide deaths among working-aged men will continue to increase and affect a significant portion of our population over the next 25 years.

Public health and behavioral health leaders are calling for targeting services at males through innovative approaches, including community-based campaigns. Suicide prevention campaigns have been shown to be effective in helping adults in general, but few target working-aged men to promote identifying a need for help-seeking services and increasing knowledge about crisis and mental health counseling services. More research is necessary to identify the most effective mechanisms of public health campaigns and how to best target messages to at-risk populations such as working-aged men.

One state is engaging in a statewide campaign to fight this trend. is a free resource designed to engage working-aged men living in Michigan, through online depression and suicide screening and through encouraging help-seeking to reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Leaders are demonstrating a commitment to reduce the suicide rate among working-aged men in a state where suicide is a leading cause of injury death among men.

Through this campaign, men are offered online mental health screening that can be done any time and from any location, in an effort to educate men about risk for depression and suicide and to encourage help-seeking behavior from community resources. Another men-specific resource called “Man Therapy” is also offered and is designed to provide even greater assessment and support for men on suicide risk and related issues — including stress, substance use and relationship issues.

See also: Employers’ Role in Preventing Suicide

The online depression screening asks men about depression and suicide using a standardized measure that taps into symptoms such as low energy and motivation; loss of appetite; interruption of sleep; difficulties concentrating and making decisions; and thoughts of and plans for suicide. Based on responses to the online surveys, men may then be invited to participate in the voluntary research study conducted by the University of Maryland. The research team expects to enroll as many as 300 men in the study by Aug. 31, 2018.

Partners throughout Michigan include nearly 100 mental health and suicide prevention organizations as well as 50 health and non-health groups. “Non-health” partner organizations include employers in male-dominated workplaces such as first responder and construction workplaces, sports and recreational clubs, faith-based organizations, colleges/universities, fraternities, men’s clubs, barber shops, casinos and hunting and boating clubs. It is through these partnerships that the researchers promote and, subsequently, recruit men for the research study. can be a great free benefit to businesses, where the cost of providing health insurance and wellness benefits (particularly to small-business employees) can be expensive. By providing a free resource — such as, which can be used to check a person’s mental health status and receive local resources and supports — employers can communicate care and concern to their employees while promoting good mental health practices and overall employee well-being. is working to meet men where they are at any time — at their home, workplace and in the online community. The campaign helps men learn that taking control of their mental health is a manly thing to do.

See also: Blueprint for Suicide Prevention  

Results from this important study will inform the field about effective ways in which to engage working-aged men in suicide help-seeking behavior — information that is sorely needed to save lives. Additionally, this study will provide evidence regarding best practices for online screening and referral to treatment that can be scaled and sustained throughout the country.

For more information about becoming a partner to help promote Healthy Men Michigan or for questions about the research, contact Dr. Frey at:


About the Author

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.

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About the Author

Dr. Jodi Jacobson Frey is an associate professor at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work. Dr. Jacobson Frey chairs the employee assistance program (EAP) sub-specialization and the financial social work initiative.

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About the Author

Amanda Mosby is a program manager at the University of Maryland Baltimore. She has 15 years of experience coordinating a variety of research studies and academic projects targeted toward improving behavioral health and well-being in individuals.

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