Evidence-Based Reviews

Losing a patient to suicide: Navigating the aftermath

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Family contact. Most authors have recommended that clinicians and/or agencies reach out to surviving families. Although some legal representatives will advise against this, experts in the field of suicide litigation have noted that compassionate family contact reduces liability and facilitates healing for both parties. In a personal communication (May 2008), Eric Harris, of the American Psychological Association Trust, recommended “compassion over caution” when considering these issues. Again, it is important to clarify who holds privilege after a patient’s death in determining when and with whom the patient’s confidential information may be shared. When confidentiality may be broken, clinical judgment should be used to determine how best to present the information to grieving family members.

Even if surviving family members do not hold privilege, there are many things that clinicians can do to be helpful.23 Inevitably, families will want any information that will help them make sense of the loss, and general psychoeducation about mental illness and suicide can be helpful in this regard. In addition, providing information about “Survivors After Suicide” support groups, reading materials, etc., can be helpful. Both support groups and survivor-related bibliographies are available on the web sites of the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org) and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org).

In addition, clinicians should ask the family if it would be helpful if they were to attend the funeral/memorial services, and how to introduce themselves if asked by other attendees.

Patients in clinics/hospitals. When a patient suicide occurs in a clinic or hospital setting, it is likely to impact other patients in that setting to the extent that they have heard, about the event, even from outside sources.According to Hodgkinson,24 in addition to being overwhelmed with intense feelings about the suicide loss (particularly if they had known the patient), affected patients are likely to be at increased risk for suicidal behaviors. This is consistent with the considerable literature on suicide contagion.

Thus, it is important to clarify information to be shared with patients; however, avoid describing details of the method, because this can foster contagion and “copycat” suicides. In addition, Kaye and Soreff22 noted that these patients may now be concerned about the staff’s ability to be helpful to them, because they were unable to help the deceased. In light of this, take extra care to attend to the impact of the suicide on current patients, and to monitor both pre-existing and new suicidality.

Continue to: Helping affected clinicians


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