We need to ensure that these individuals who are left behind are supported and taken care of.
Much of the coverage thus far has focused on the individuals themselves, with little attention paid to the impact of these suicides on others, specifically those close to the victims. This is problematic given the lasting impact of suicide on those left behind.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 10 people are deeply affected by each suicide. They are known as “suicide survivors” and often experience a specific form of bereavement, referred to as suicide bereavement, following the death of a loved one, friend or close contact.
Researchers have examined the experience of suicide bereavement in different groups, including spouses, parents and siblings. This research shows that suicide bereavement is associated with adverse mental and physical health, poor functioning in school and at work, and delays accessing supports and services.
Notably, suicide bereavement can actually lead to suicide in certain groups. Partners and spouses are particularly at risk, especially men who are also less likely to display help-seeking behaviour. Additionally, mothers who have lost a child to suicide are at greater risk for suicide than fathers.
All this raises the question: why is suicide bereavement, more than other situations of bereavement, associated with such negative outcomes? One explanation involves the nature of suicide. These deaths tend to be more traumatic, given their often unexpected and violent nature. The most prominent explanation, however, centres around the issue of stigma.
Research indicates that people still show high levels of stigma toward families of suicide victims. People experiencing suicide bereavement also report high-levels of self-stigma, which may lead to isolation, shame and feelings of rejection. Notably, perceived stigma, or the subjective awareness of others’ stigmatizing views, has been tentatively linked to the high rates of suicide seen in suicide-bereaved adults.
Suicide bereavement thus requires greater attention in the media as well as by policy-makers and health-care professionals; especially given current suicide trends and societal changes that may exacerbate the experience. Indeed, suicide rates have continued to rise across various demographics, most notably among women and youth.
Recent societal changes may worsen the experiences of suicide bereaved. Our society has become increasingly individualistic, with fewer marriages, more divorces and higher numbers of people living alone. This may present unique challenges for people experiencing suicide bereavement; especially older adults and adolescents who experience elevated rates of loneliness.
The growth of the internet and social media may further contribute higher numbers of people impacted by suicide. This is because online social networks tend to be much larger than in real life, thereby increasing the number of people exposed to suicide. In fact, empirical studies suggest that this number is much higher than previously estimated. One study found that about 135 people are exposed to each suicide, with six experiencing a major disruption in their daily lives and 26 needing support.
Some may share their grief online to come to terms with their loss. Others may create an online memorial for someone who has died by suicide. Although these online communities may transform the typically negative experience of bereavement into a more positive, shared experience, they also can increase the number of people exposed to suicide and thus the number of people in need of support.
There is no doubt that these deaths are tragedies for all involved; for the individuals themselves who lost their lives to suicide, but especially for their loved ones, friends and wider communities who are left grappling with their deaths. We need to ensure that these individuals who are left behind are supported and taken care of.
Victoria Carmichael is the research manager of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group (SPRING) at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.
Updated: April 3, 2019