Conference Coverage

How to cope after your patient commits suicide



– Michael J. Gitlin, MD, was 6 months removed from his psychiatry residency in 1980 when, for the first time, a patient he cared for took his own life.

He was a chronically depressed young man receiving medication and psychotherapy, and had one prior suicide attempt, Dr. Gitlin, now professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, recalled at an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. “One day he came in and intimated that he was going to kill himself, but not in the near future so as to not upset his parents. I scheduled another visit with him in 2 days and told him, ‘If you’re really having trouble, I’ll put you in the hospital.’ ”

The man never showed for that planned visit. Dr. Gitlin telephoned acquaintances and eventually the police, and through the window of his apartment, they observed his dead body. “That was my first experience, where I began to think, ‘what does this do to us as psychiatrists, and how do we deal with it?’ ”

According to Dr. Gitlin, fewer than 25 papers in the medical literature address the topic of how to cope when a patient takes his or her own life. He considers it ironic, because about 42,000 people in the United States die from suicide each year. “Of that 42,000, a reasonable percentage have seen a health professional, and a little lower percentage a mental health professional, within a number of weeks before the suicide happened,” he said. “Probably 10,000 psychiatrists per year will have this experience.”


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