ATLANTA, Georgia – The loss of a patient to suicide affects mental health professionals significantly, both professionally and personally. A large percentage of residents and practicing psychiatrists who have lost a patient need better resources and support to help them cope, according to the results of an innovative study presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).1
Archana Sugumar, MD, of the Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, North Carolina, and colleagues developed and administered a questionnaire to examine clinicians’ reactions to patient suicide and their methods of coping following the loss of a patient. Although 40% to 70% of psychiatrists will experience at least 1 patient suicide during their careers, the existing literature on the impact of suicide on this group of professionals is sparse.2
The researchers collected data on demographic characteristics, number of suicidal events encountered in practice, duration and impact of patient suicide on professional life, effects on personal life, and coping strategies used by psychiatrists. Out of 50 respondents in this sample, 30% cared for a patient who completed suicide, and “about 66% of respondents did not have access to or did not utilize any support system,” the researchers noted in the study abstract. The rest of the study participants relied on their spouse or significant other, family members or friends, and other mental health professionals for support.
Compared to clinicians, a high number of trainees reported sleep problems (37.5% vs 0%, P<.05) and thoughts of early retirement (38% vs 0%, P<.05) after losing a patient to suicide; however, the attending physicians reported feelings of anger significantly more than did the residents (57% vs 0%, P<0.05). One of the main concerns for a majority (73%) of respondents irrespective of professional standing and years of experience was fear of litigation and retribution following patient suicide.
Suicide is one of the public health challenges of our time, and the proportion of mental health caregivers who experience the death of a patient by suicide is concerning. “Didactics on coping with patient suicide, crisis support teams, online resources, Employee Assistance Programs and access to risk management services may be beneficial and should be considered in all residency training programs,” the researchers concluded.
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Sugumar A, O’Neal SM, Boddapati A, Anand V. Coping with patient suicide: a cross-sectional study on the effects of patient suicide on psychiatry residents and attendings. Poster presentation at: 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association; May 14-18, 2016; Atlanta, GA. P2-019.
Foley SR, Kelly BD. When a patient dies by suicide: incidence, implications and coping strategies. Adv Psychiatr Treat. 2013;15:322-327.