People bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member due to suicide are 65% more likely to attempt suicide than if their friend or family member died due to natural causes, according to research published in BMJ Open.
Those bereaved by suicide were also 80% more likely to drop out of education or work.
To study the impacts associated with bereavement by suicide, Alexandra Pitman, PhD, from University College London Psychiatry analyzed 3 432 UK university staff and students ages 18-40 who had been bereaved. Of the participants, 614 were bereaved by suicide, 712 by sudden unnatural causes, and 2 106 by sudden natural causes.
Of the participants bereaved by suicide, 8% had dropped out of an educational course or a job since the death.
“Our results highlight the profound impact that suicide might have on friends and family members,” said Alexandra Pitman, PhD, UCL Psychiatry in a statement. “However, these outcomes are by no means inevitable. If you have been bereaved by suicide, you should know that [you] are not alone and support is available. There is a guide called Help is at Hand, written by people affected by suicide, which offers emotional and practical advice as well as information on organizations that can offer further support.”
Dr Pitman also found that those who had lost someone due to suicide tended to perceive more social stigma around the death. When results of the study were adjusted to account for perceived social stigma, the significant difference in suicide attempts and ability to function in an educational setting or in a job disappeared. This suggests that addressing the social stigma of suicide bereavement may help friends and family members cope.
“We know that people can find it difficult to know what to say to someone who has recently been bereaved,” said Dr Pitman. “However, saying something is often better than saying nothing, and simple gestures like offering practical help with day-to-day activities can mean a lot.
“For example, when a colleague bereaved by suicide returns to work after compassionate leave then it could be helpful to ask how they are and offer to help them with their workload. Employers should be aware of the significant impact that suicide bereavement has on people’s working lives and make adjustments to help their staff return to work.”
Dr Pitman added that those bereaved by suicide should not be made to feel responsible in any way, and that they “should be treated with the same compassion as people bereaved by any other cause.”
Previous studies have shown that a family history of suicide can increase suicide risk, so hospitals, prisons, and social care settings have taken this into account when analyzing a person’s risk. However, this study suggests that when assessing suicide risk, a history of suicide among non-blood relatives and friends should also be considered.
Asking about the impact of a loss by suicide will also give professionals a sense of how it has affected a person’s daily functioning and whether feelings of stigma prevented them from seeking or accessing help.
Pitman AL, et al. Bereavement by suicide as a risk factor for suicide attempt: a cross-sectional national UK-wide study of 3432 young bereaved adults. BMJ Open. 2016; doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009948.