Evidence-Based Reviews

Losing a patient to suicide: Navigating the aftermath

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Focus on clinicians’ needs as well as legal, administrative, and institutional concerns.

Second of 2 parts.



At some point during their career, many mental health professionals will lose a patient to suicide, but few will be prepared for the experience and its aftermath. As I described in Part 1 of this article (Current Psychiatry. October 2019, p. 14-16,19-22,30-32), a suicide loss is often associated with multiple personal and professional issues, including legal and ethical concerns, confidentiality constraints that may impede discussing and processing the loss, colleagues’ blaming/unsupportive reactions, stigma around both suicide and professional vulnerability, and potential effects on one’s clinical work. In Part 2, I explore the opportunities for personal and professional growth that can paradoxically result from a suicide loss, guidelines for appropriate postventions and procedures that should take place after such losses, and how to best support a colleague who has lost a patient to suicide.

A chance for growth

Traumatic experiences such as a suicide loss can paradoxically present a multitude of opportunities for new growth and profound personal transformation.1 Such transformation is primarily fostered by social support in the aftermath of the trauma.2

Virtually all of the models of the clinician’s suicide grief trajectory I described in Part 1 not only assume the eventual resolution of the distressing reactions accompanying the original loss, but also suggest that mastery of these reactions can be a catalyst for both personal and professional growth. Clearly, not everyone who experiences such a loss will experience subsequent growth; there are many reports of clinicians leaving the field3 or becoming “burned out” after this occurs. Yet most clinicians who have described this loss in the literature and in discussion groups (including those I’ve conducted) have reported more positive eventual outcomes. It is difficult to establish whether this is due to a cohort effect—clinicians who are most likely to write about their experiences, be interviewed for research studies, and/or to seek out and participate in discussion/support groups may be more prone to find benefits in this experience, either by virtue of their nature or through the subsequent process of sharing these experiences in a supportive atmosphere.

The literature on patient suicide loss, as well as anecdotal reports, confirms that clinicians who experience optimal support are able to identify many retrospective benefits of their experience.4-6 Clinicians generally report that they are better able to identify potential risk and protective factors for suicide, and are more knowledgeable about optimal interventions with individuals who are suicidal. They also describe an increased sensitivity towards patients who are suicidal and those bereaved by suicide. In addition, clinicians report a reduction in therapeutic grandiosity/omnipotence, and more realistic appraisals and expectations in relation to their clinical competence. In their effort to understand the “whys” of their patient’s suicide, they are likely to retrospectively identify errors in treatment, “missed cues,” or things they might subsequently do differently,7 and to learn from these mistakes. Optimally, clinicians become more aware of their own therapeutic limitations, both in the short- and the long-term, and can use this knowledge to better determine how they will continue their clinical work. They also become much more aware of the issues involved in the aftermath of a patient suicide, including perceived gaps in the clinical and institutional systems that could optimally offer support to families and clinicians.

In addition to the positive changes related to knowledge and clinical skills, many clinicians also note deeper personal changes subsequent to their patient’s suicide, consistent with the literature on posttraumatic growth.1 Munson8 explored internal changes in clinicians following a patient suicide and found that in the aftermath, clinicians experienced both posttraumatic growth and compassion fatigue. He also found that the amount of time that elapsed since the patient’s suicide predicted posttraumatic growth, and the seemingly counterintuitive result that the number of years of clinical experience prior to the suicide was negatively correlated with posttraumatic growth.

Huhra et al4 described some of the existential issues that a clinician is likely to confront following a patient suicide. A clinician’s attempt to find a way to meaningfully understand the circumstances around this loss often prompts reflection on mortality, freedom, choice and personal autonomy, and the scope and limits of one’s responsibility toward others. The suicide challenges one’s previous conceptions and expectations around these professional issues, and the clinician must construct new paradigms that serve to integrate these new experiences and perspectives in a coherent way.

One of the most notable sequelae of this (and to other traumatic) experience is a subsequent desire to make use of the learning inherent in these experiences and to “give back.” Once they feel that they have resolved their own grief process, many clinicians express the desire to support others with similar experiences. Even when their experiences have been quite distressing, many clinicians are able to view the suicide as an opportunity to learn about ongoing limitations in the systems of support, and to work toward changing these in a way that ensures that future clinician-survivors will have more supportive experiences. Many view these new perspectives, and their consequent ability to be more helpful, as “unexpected gifts.” They often express gratitude toward the people and resources that have allowed them to make these transformations. Jones5 noted “the tragedy of patient suicide can also be an opportunity for us as therapists to grow in our skills at assessing and intervening in a suicidal crisis, to broaden and deepen the support we give and receive, to grow in our appreciation of the precious gift that life is, and to help each other live it more fully.”

Continue to: Guidelines for postvention


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