Evidence-Based Reviews

Losing a patient to suicide: What we know

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Negative reactions from professional colleagues are most likely to occur immediately after the suicide loss and/or during the course of a subsequent investigation or psychological autopsy. Castelli-Dransart et al53 found that the lack of institutional support after a clinician experiences a suicide loss contributed to significantly higher stress responses for impacted clinicians, and may lead to a well-founded ambivalence about disclosure to colleagues, and consequent resistance to seeking out optimal supervision/consultation or even personal therapy that could help the clinician gain clarity on the effects of these issues. Many mental health professionals have described how, after the distressing experience of losing a patient to suicide, they moved through this process in relative isolation and loneliness, feeling abandoned by their colleagues and by their own hopes and expectations for support.

Stigmatization. In clinical settings, when a patient in treatment completes suicide, the treating clinician becomes an easy scapegoat for family members and colleagues. To the extent that mental health professionals are not immune from the effects and imposition of stigma, this might also affect their previously mentioned tendency to project judgment, overtly or covertly, onto the treating clinician.

Stigma around suicide is well documented.25 In The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide,54 former Surgeon General David Satcher specifically described stigma around suicide as one of the biggest barriers to prevention. Studies have shown that individuals bereaved by suicide are also stigmatized, and that those who were in caregiving roles (parents, clinicians) are believed to be more psychologically disturbed, less likable, more blameworthy, and less worthy of receiving support than other bereaved individuals.25,55-63 These judgments often mirror survivors’ self-punitive assessments, which then become exacerbated by and intertwined with both externally imposed and internalized stigma. Hence, it is not uncommon for suicide survivors to question their own right to grieve, to report low expectations of social support, and to feel compelled to deny or hide the mode of death. Feigelman et al26 found that stigmatization after a suicide loss was specifically associated with ongoing grief difficulties, depression, and suicidal thinking.

In my long-term work with clinician-survivors, I’ve come to believe that in addition to stigma around suicide, there may also be stigma projected by colleagues in relation to a clinician’s perceived emotional vulnerability. A traumatized clinician potentially challenges the notion of the implicit dichotomy/power imbalance between professionals and the patients we treat: “Us”—the professional, competent, healthy, and benevolent clinicians who have the care to offer, and “Them”—our patients, being needy, pathological, looking to us for care. This “us/them” distinction may serve to bolster a clinician’s professional esteem and identity. But when one of “us” becomes one of “them”—when a professional colleague is perceived as being emotionally vulnerable—this can be threatening to the predicates of this distinction, leading to the need to put the affected clinician firmly into the “them” camp. Thus, unwarranted condemnations of the clinician-survivor’s handling of the case, and/or the pathologizing of their normative grief reactions after the suicide loss, can seem justified.

Stigma associated both with suicide and with professional vulnerability is likely to be internalized and to have a profound effect on the clinician’s decisions about disclosure, asking for support, and ultimately on one’s ability to integrate the loss. When this occurs, it is likely to lead to even more isolation, shame, and self-blame. It is not surprising that many clinicians consider leaving the profession after this type of experience.

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