Media Spotlight

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When A Loved One Commits Suicide

Can a self-help guide help people cope with suicide?

Every year there are an estimated one million suicides worldwide and those numbers have been rising in many countries.   In the United States alone, that means 37,000 suicide deaths making it the tenth leading cause of death overall.   What impact does that have on people dealing with the suicide of a loved one?  And do they always get they need afterward?   

Along with the usual grief surrounding sudden there, dealing with a suicide usually involves feelings of guilt, shame, and feelings of rejection, the stigma that surrounds suicide is very real (especially suicides linked to mental illness).    Having lost a family member to suicide at a relatively early age (an uncle), I witnessed the impact it had firsthand and the emotional scars that followed have never really healed.   And I am hardly unique in that. 

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In many cases, shame can even lead family members to conceal evidence that a suicide has happened at all and making the death appear to be due to  accident or illness.    The only certainty about suicide is the impact it will have on the ones left behind who may or may not seek any kind of professional counseling to cope with bereavement.   The trauma of the suicide itself can often be made worse by the official investigation that follows, particularly if there is a coroner’s inquest involved.   

But what kind of help can we find after a suicide?   Aside from well-meaning family and friends (who may be totally mystified about how to help someone cope), people dealing with bereavement usually turn to health care professionals such as medical doctors, psychologists or other counselors.   There are also volunteer support organizations and online resources.  

In recent years, self-help resources are becoming more common, whether online or through the various self-help books and booklets available at bookstores or in libraries.    How effective these resources can be is still open to question since actual research investigating their benefit is limited. 

As a response to the 5500 suicide deaths that happen each year in the United Kingdom, the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England was launched in 2002.  As part of the comprehensive anti-suicide initiative, a self-help booklet titled Help Is At Hand was released in 2006.   Available in hardcopy and online, the booklet was developed by an advisory group made up of bereavement organizations, mental health professionals, law enforcement agencies and academics specializing in suicide research.  

Help Is At Hand is intended for people bereaved by suicide or other sudden traumatic deaths and comes in the following sections: 

  • Practical matters, i.e., arranging funerals, how to deal with an inquest and the media.   A checklist is also included to list who might need to be informed of the death.
  • Experiencing bereavement-  the grieving process and what emotional responses to expect
  • Bereaved people with special needs-   including parents, children,  sexual minorities
  • How friends and colleagues can help-  advice for friends, colleagues, teachers and health professionals
  • Sources of support-  including contact information for support agencies and where to go for additional resources

A new study published in Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention provides the first comprehensive evaluation of the actual value that Help Is At Hand has in the UK’s suicide prevention strategy.    Two of the researchers conducting the study,  Keith Hawton and Sue Simkin of the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research were part of the team that first developed Help Is At Hand for the U.K. Department of Health.   The other researchers came from the University of Nottingham, the Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.  Using a series of focus groups, telephone interviews and anonymous questionnaires, and data collected from the Department of Health on number of computer downloads and hardcopies  of the booklet made available to social agencies and individuals, the researchers compiled statistics on Help Is At Hand use between 2007 and 2009.   While only a small percentage of bereaved persons who had received one of the thousands of hardcopy  or online versions of the self-help booklet agreed to participate in the study, some useful statistics were collected.

Overall, the researchers concluded that Help Is At Hand is a useful resource for people dealing with suicide but less so for people who had received the booklet for other kinds of traumatic loss.   The content on “practical matters” and “experiencing bereavement” was especially well-received by people dealing with grief.   One concern raised by people using the booklet was how poorly promoted it had been.  Many of the people using the booklet had only come across it by accident when doing a  computer search for potential resources.  They also suggested that the preferred time to receive Help Is At Hand is within a month of the death and that the booklet be made readily available from coroner’s offices, funeral homes, family doctor’s offices, hospital emergency departments, and even public  libraries.  

Though self-help guides are only one way to help people dealing with suicide,  providing information to health-care and other support professionals (many of  whom have no formal training in grief counseling) is essential as well.    The emotional harm caused by suicide of a loved one requires sensitivity that even well-meaning friends and colleagues may lack, especially in the emotional weeks that follow sudden death.   That resources such as Help Is At Hand  are only a computer click away is information that should be as widely shared as possible. 

To download Help Is At Hand(pdf)

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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