Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

How ‘Mad Men’ Dealt with Suicide in the Workplace

Reactions and feelings of those left behind after a suicide.

‘Mad Men’ doesn’t exactly shy away from controversy. The show’s reflection of life in the 1960s unabashedly shines a light on adultery, sexism, substance abuse, and race. 

So, that’s why I was particularly interested in how the show dealt with suicide. In the last two episodes of the season, ‘Mad Men’ introduced a workplace topic different from the gender dynamics, power struggles, and interpersonal dramas that draw so many viewers into the show: workplace suicide.

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The storyline ending with the suicide of Lane Pryce, the de facto operations manager of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, was in many ways, predictable. Facing financial ruin, Lane sees no way out. He’s ashamed, afraid, and broke, with a family to support. He doesn’t have what we’d now call a “support network.” There doesn’t seem to be anyone in his life—a co-worker, his wife, a friend—who he can be honest with about his fears and his feelings of failure.

While many have said that this predictable ending was boring, I think more interesting than why Lane died by suicide was how Lane’s colleagues—Don Draper, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling, and Joan Harris—deal with his death.

Reactions ranged from shock, to tears, to guilt. Outside of the show, suicide in the workplace affects employees in just these ways. For anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, a workplace suicide can have an even stronger impact.

That’s why Don’s reaction was so interesting to me—Don’s brother Adam died by suicide, a fact which haunts Don in, I imagine, much the same way that Lane’s suicide will continue to haunt him. Like all survivors of suicide, the question of “what could I have done?” stays around for a long time.

Having spoken with people who have lost colleagues to suicide, I have been surprised that even those who did not know the person well expressed some desire to do something—whether it was to do something that could have prevented that particular death, or to do something to prevent suicide on a broader scale. 

Stepping away from the TV and into real life, Working Minds is a great resource for those interested in workplace suicide prevention. In some ways, Lane’s death, though taking place decades ago in TV land, is representative of the statistics we see today. Middle-aged men have the highest rates of suicide, and so the workplace—where many men spend much of their time—can be a powerful venue for suicide prevention.

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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