Suicide has a crushing effect on the people left behind. U.S. and U.K. researchers have suggested that losing a friend or relative to suicide is a suicide risk itself. However, the theory that suicide bereavement exceeds the bereavement of any sudden death was not backed by enough evidence.
Now, researchers at the University College London found that adults affected by the suicide of a friend or relative are 65 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those bereaved by sudden death of other causes. Those bereaved by suicide are also 80 percent more likely to drop out of school or work.
The data will allow hospitals, prisons, and social care settings to assess the risk for suicide more accurately.
The researchers looked at 3,432 participants between the ages of 18-40 who had been exposed to a sudden death of a friend or relative. They compared those bereaved by suicide and those bereaved by sudden death. Thus, they were able to measure the specific impact of suicide bereavement.
The findings also provide insight in how to appropriately respond to those bereaved by suicide. People bereaved by suicide were found to perceive more social stigma around death. "British people [are often] uncomfortable talking about death, and suicide, in particular, [is] perceived as a taboo subject," explains study author Alexandra Pitman.
"However, avoiding the subject can make a bereaved person feel very isolated and stigmatized, and sometimes even blamed for the death.” People bereaved by suicide feel more rejection and shame compared to those bereaved by other violent deaths, according to a previous study
“People bereaved by suicide should not be made to feel in any way responsible, and should be treated with the same compassion as people bereaved by any other cause,” Pitman said. “Suicide is a complex issue and there is often no simple explanation for why someone chooses to take their own life. Although one often hears people refer to a relationship breakup or a redundancy as the trigger for a suicide, this is far too simplistic and, in reality, it is often a culmination of different life events rather than one individual ‘cause.'"
While further research is necessary, the study suggests that addressing the social stigma around suicide could help limit its impact of the suicide on people’s lives.
"We know that people can find it difficult to know what to say to someone who has recently been bereaved,” Pitman said. “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."