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Strategies for Effective Suicide Loss Postvention

Suicide deaths have consistently been on the rise in the United States for the last 20-30 years. With suicide consistently in the top 10 causes of the deaths in the U.S., it’s important to understand how you can help clients grieving from suicide loss. To do this, you and your staff need to understand and practice effective postvention techniques.

Currently, suicide postvention is used to provide organized support and response to those experiencing a loss to suicide. To achieve these ends, postvention efforts aim to do three things:

  • Provide support for suicide loss survivors and promote healing from significant loss.
  • Mitigate the potential negative outcomes associated with suicide.
  • Establish effective communication strategies.

In this article, we’ll explore how your organization can use this approach to postvention in order to provide timely and effective care to your clients and community.

The effects of suicide loss

Estimates suggest that one in 20 people will lose someone they know to suicide in any given year, and one in five will lose someone to suicide at some point in their lifetime. Moreover, a death by suicide seems to exert a ripple effect whereby potentially large numbers of people may be affected.

For each death by suicide, estimates suggest that an additional 115 people are impacted by exposure to suicide. Approximately one in five of those individuals experience significant disruptions in functioning or are markedly impacted by their exposure to suicide.

It is well-documented in the literature that survivors of suicide loss are themselves at increased risk of suicidal behavior. Psychiatric issues, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and problematic substance use are more common with suicide losses compared to other types of losses. Physical health complications are also more common and may be linked to ineffective coping methods and lack of self-care.

Additionally, in the aftermath of a suicide, some individuals may be at increased risk of negative outcomes, including increased risk of suicide. The risk of such adverse outcomes tends to be higher for those who:

  • Perceive themselves as having a close relationship with the deceased
  • Were already experiencing psychiatric issues, such as depression, or had suicidal thoughts and behaviors prior to the death
  • Believe they are somehow responsible for the death through their actions or inactions
  • Identify with the deceased in some way, such as believing they shared values, lifestyles, or similar circumstances
  • Are younger, especially teens and young adults

This dangerous combination of behavioral health risks following a suicide loss is what makes postvention so crucial.

Using postvention to provide support and facilitate healing

To promote healing following a suicide loss, it’s important to offer compassionate, person-centered care.

To begin this process, identify individuals who are left vulnerable to mental health risks following a suicide. This can be friends, family, or fellow community members of the deceased. When working with these individuals, make sure to assess their risk for negative outcomes, such as impaired functioning, extreme distress, or even suicidal ideation.

After your organization has identified the vulnerable individuals in need of supports, intervene in person-centered ways. This will allow you to understand the individual and their unique circumstances and needs following a suicide loss. By understanding these needs, you can offer care that incorporates what this person deems necessary for their own healing into the care you provide.

This will have the added benefit of allowing the individual in crisis to feel like an active participant in their own care. Research has shown that by giving individuals a sense of agency in their care they can regain a sense of control over their well-being.

To provide effective person-centered care, you must also provide compassionate care. This helps your organization to provide effective postvention by ensuring the individuals you work with feel both cared about.

Gerald McCleery, PhD, offers the following advice on how to provide compassionate care:

  • Place a premium on listening.
  • Be mindful that real, genuine warmth matters.
  • Give the person you are with your full, undivided attention.
  • Ask the person if they have any questions — don’t just assume they will ask.
  • Know that privacy and dignity matter.
  • Keep your own reactions — sympathetic grief, etc. — in check.
  • Reinforce that your client’s welfare matters and talk with them about how they can actively collaborate in their care.

Mitigating negative effects with a postvention communication strategy

To help individuals and communities cope with the effects of suicide loss, your organization needs to craft an effective communication plan. Through outreach and communication efforts, you can have a positive impact on suicide loss survivors and help to reduce the risk of further deaths by suicide.

In fact, research has shown that alternative methods of reporting on suicide are associated with decreased rates of suicide, a phenomenon termed the Papageno effect. Specifically, decreased rates of suicide are observed when:

  • Suicides are framed within a context of successful coping.
  • Stories of hope, resilience, and recovery are prominent.
  • Information about risk factors and warning signs of suicide are shared.
  • Resources for treatment and support are emphasized.

To begin, craft a communication strategy that takes this trauma-informed, person-centered approach. This will allow your organization to tailor your postvention messaging to individuals as well as whole communities.

After you’ve created your messaging, work with local media outlets and partner agencies to deliver meaningful, community-wide outreach. Due to the fragmented nature of the mental health services delivery system, it may prove difficult for individuals to find the help they need – especially if they’re in the midst of crisis. But, by providing effective outreach, you can help suicide-bereaved individuals discover services they may not know are available to them.

You must also make sure that your staff know how to talk about suicide loss in their one-on-one meetings with clients. To that end, train your clinicians to walk their clients through the following:

  • What the grieving process may involve
  • What to tell their children about suicide and how they can help them cope, if applicable
  • How to address their own needs

Lastly, it’s important to avoid language such as “they are no longer in pain.” This type of language may inadvertently idolize or glorify suicide to those at risk of suicidal ideations or actions, leading to an increased risk of suicide among suicide loss survivors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts about suicide, there is hope. Contact 988 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

2022 Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Report

Download the 2022 Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Report to gain insight into the current state of training for crisis prevention and intervention among behavioral health and intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) professionals.

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