Coping with Suicide Deaths

A recent smoky sunrise on the Stillwater River

As most of you know, I recently published an article in Psychotherapy Networker on my long-term experience of coping with the death of a client by suicide. In response to the article, I’ve gotten many supportive responses, some of which included additional published resources on coping with client death by suicide.

This blog post has two parts. First, I’m promoting the Networker article again to get it more widely shared as one resource for counselors and psychotherapists who have lost a client. Below, is an excerpt from the article. . . followed by a link. Please share with friends and colleagues as you see fit.

Second, at the end of this post I’m including additional resource articles that several people have shared with me over the past two weeks.

Here’s the excerpt . . .

The Prevention Myth

I’d worked with Ethan for about 20 sessions. Stocky, socially awkward, and intellectually gifted, he often avoided telling me much of anything, but his unhappiness was palpable. He didn’t fit in with classmates or connect with teachers. Ethan felt like a misfit at home and out of place at school. Nearly always, he experienced the grinding pain of being different, regardless of the context.

But aren’t we all different? Don’t we all suffer grinding pain, at least sometimes? What pushed Ethan to suicide when so many others, with equally difficult life situations and psychodynamics, stay alive?

One truth that reassures me now, and I wish I’d grasped back in the 1990s, is that empirical research generally affirms that suicide is unpredictable. This reality runs counter to much of what we hear from well-meaning suicide-prevention professionals. You may have heard the conventional wisdom: “Suicide is 100 percent preventable!” and, “If you educate yourself about risk factors and warning signs, and ask people directly about suicidal thoughts or plans, you can save lives.”

Although there’s some empirical evidence for these statements (i.e., sometimes suicide is preventable, and sometimes you can save lives), the general idea that knowledge of suicide risk, protective factors, and warning signs will equip clinicians to predict individual suicides is an illusion. In a 2017 large-scale meta-analysis covering 50 years of research on risk and protective factors, Joseph Franklin of Vanderbilt University and nine other prominent suicide researchers conducted an exhaustive analysis of 3,428 empirical studies. They found very little support for risk or protective factors as suicide predictors. In one of many of their sobering conclusions, they wrote, “It may be tempting to interpret some of the small differences across outcomes as having meaningful implications, . . . however, we note here that all risk factors were weak in magnitude and that any differences across outcomes . . . are not likely to be meaningful.”

Franklin and his collaborators were articulating the unpleasant conclusion that we have no good science-based tools for accurately predicting suicide. I hope this changes, but at the moment, I find comfort in the scientific validation of my personal experience. For years, I’ve held onto another suicide quotation for solace. In 1995, renowned suicidologist Robert Litman wrote, “When I am asked why one depressed and suicidal patient dies by suicide while nine other equally depressed and equally suicidal patients do not, I answer, ‘I don’t know.’”

Here’s the link to the full article: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/2565/the-myth-of-infallibility

Here are the additional resources people have shared with me:

Ellis, T. E., & Patel, A. B. (2012). Client suicide: what now?. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice19(2), 277-287.

Jorgensen, M. F., Bender, S., & McCutchen, A. (2021) “I’m haunted by it:” Experiences of licensed counselors who had a client die by suicide. Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy. DOI: 10.1080/2326716X.2021.1916790

Knox, S., Burkard, A. W., Jackson, J. A., Schaack, A. M., & Hess, S. A. (2006). Therapists-in-training who experience a client suicide: Implications for supervision. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(5), 547-557.

Ting, L., Jacobson, J. M., & Sanders, S. (2008). Available supports and coping behaviors of mental health social workers following fatal and nonfatal client suicidal behavior. Social work, 53(3), 211-221.

As always, thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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