Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Can suicide prevention happen after a suicide?

Why what happens after a suicide occurs can be prevention.

It seems illogical - how can suicide prevention happen after a suicide occurs?

A component of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention is postvention: creating a response system specifically for the aftermath of a suicide. A community's response after a suicide has a role in supporting prevention.

Involved in a postvention response are people who are part of a community in a variety of ways: law enforcement, first responders, clinicians, school personnel, hospital personnel, coroners, medical examiners, funeral directors, clergy, local crisis center staff, community organizations, and suicide prevention staff. Often, media also need to be engaged so that reporting of a suicide follows safety guidelines and so that community members can know what resources are available for them in this time of crisis. If the person who dies by suicide is a young person, other young people, as well as parents, may also be involved in a postvention response.

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The purposes and benefits of a community response are to reduce the chance of contagion and more suicide deaths, assist and support family and other survivors, reduce misinformation and false rumors about the suicide death, provide support for all individuals in the community, and strengthen suicide prevention efforts overall.

Earlier this year, I read an article that encouraged parents to talk with their teenage children about mental illness. The article featured the story of Hannah Trautner, who was a junior at Redwood High School in 2008 when a classmate died by suicide. According to the article, Hannah is a friendly, outgoing, straight-A student, who has struggled with depression since the 7th grade and who attempted suicide as a sophomore. In the article, Hannah was sharing her wish that someone - her parents, a teacher, a fellow student - would have talked with her about the mental health issues teens face most often.

After the suicide of her classmate, she said, "People talked about it. They were upset. And then they just stopped talking about it. [Talking about it] would have helped me. I would have known I was not alone."

After a suicide, those left in its wake are at risk of suicide themselves. Survivors may now feel that suicide is an appropriate way to escape pain, may feel depressed or despondent after losing a loved one, or may just need additional support to cope with the loss. Direct follow-up with those most at risk, utilizing different modalities depending on age and relationship with the person who died by suicide, is also part of a postvention response. Family members, neighbors, friends, former boyfriends or girlfriends, teammates, club members, students in the same grade or class, individuals with recent losses, or vulnerable individuals, especially youth, are all affected by a suicide.

A suicide is most definitely a loss and a tragedy. But, the way a community responds following a suicide can be an opening for a prevention response, a beacon built from the heartbreak.

Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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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