Evidence-Based Reviews

Losing a patient to suicide: Navigating the aftermath

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Guidelines for postvention

When a patient suicide occurs in the context of an agency setting, Grad9 recommends prompt responses on 4 levels:

  • administrative
  • institutional
  • educational
  • emotional.

Numerous authors5,10-21 have developed suggestions, guidelines, and detailed postvention protocols to help agencies and clinicians in various mental health settings navigate the often-complicated sequelae to a patient’s suicide. The Table highlights a few of these. Most emphasize that information about suicide loss, including both its statistical likelihood and its potential aftermath, should integrated into clinicians’ general education and training. They also suggest that suicide postvention policies and protocols be in place from the outset, and that such information be incorporated into institutional policy and procedure manuals. In addition, they stress that legal, institutional, and administrative needs be balanced with the emotional needs of affected clinicians and staff, as well as those of the surviving family.

Examples of postvention protocols

Institutional and administrative procedures

The following are some of the recommended procedures that should take place following a suicide loss. The postvention protocols listed in the Table provide more detailed recommendations.

Legal/ethical. It is essential to consult with a legal representative/risk management specialist associated with the affected agency (ideally, one with specific expertise in suicide litigation.). It is also crucial to clarify who holds privilege after a patient’s death (varies by state), what may and may not be shared under the restrictions of confidentiality and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws, and to clarify procedures for chart completion and review. It is also important to clarify the specific information to be shared both within and outside of the agency, and how to address the needs of current patients in the agency settings.

Case review. The optimal purpose of the case review (also known as a psychological autopsy) is to facilitate learning, identify gaps in agency procedures and training, improve pre- and postvention procedures, and help clinicians cope with the loss.22 Again, the legal and administrative needs of the agency need to be balanced with the attention to the emotional impact on the treating clinician.17 Ellis and Patel18 recommend delaying this procedure until the treating clinician is no longer in the “shock” phase of the loss, and is able to think and process events more objectively.

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