After a suicide
Every suicide is a tragedy, and for many people bereaved by suicide, the impact stays with them for the rest of their life.
As a profession with an elevated suicide rate, it’s important that veterinary practices and other workplaces know how to respond if there is a suicide in their practice. Support should be delivered in a way that helps and supports those bereaved without increasing the risk of further suicides. It is important to recognise that those who have experienced a suicide can feel intense sadness, guilt or anger which can affect their own mental health. In some cases, knowing that someone has died by suicide can lead to others dwelling on the value of their own life.
As well as increasing suicide risk, bereavement by suicide has other profound impacts on those left behind. People bereaved by suicide describe experiencing a range of emotions:
- shock and disbelief
- anger, guilt and shame because of the stigma and taboo of suicide
- anxiety, fear, despair
- post-traumatic reactions – especially if they found the person after they have died
- feelings of relief if the person has been suffering for a long time, which in turn can lead to feelings of guilt
- people can also feel guilty that they have survived whilst the other person has died
There is no right or wrong way to feel in suicide bereavement, and it’s quite normal to experience a range of reactions, sometimes called the stages of grief, at different times. Grief is not linear and people’s reactions can appear to improve and then deteriorate again a number of times before they are able to come to terms with what has happened.
Practical considerations in the workplace
Suicide in colleagues can have other complications:
- Police investigations may include closing all, or part of, the building for a time to investigate the death, or requesting access to order logs and recording books and CCTV if drugs or equipment have been used in the death.
- Colleagues in the practice may feel unable to continue with work immediately but will still have responsibility for the animals under their care. It can be very helpful to arrange for another practice to cover emergency and 24 hour responsibilities in the immediate aftermath and at the time of a funeral, so that all practice members who wish to can attend.
- Coroner or Procurator Fiscal inquiries can be prolonged and distressing – especially if the death attracts media attention.
- Practices also have considerations such as how to inform clients of a colleague’s death, and, in time, whether to formally remember the person in the workplace. Samaritans advise that public memorials are time limited, and after a period, tributes are sent to the family in private rather than displayed publicly
Handling the media
It can help to have a planned response as a practice to the media in this situation:
- Nominate a single person as a spokesperson
- Discourage others in the practice from making comments to the media
- Prepare a statement and do not deviate from it
- Avoid sensationalizing the death, and don’t give details of the suicide method or anything written in a suicide note. Samaritans guidance also encourages people to avoid giving simple ‘explanations’ of the suicide such as ‘…was stressed about a complaint’
It’s vitally important that people can access support after a suicide, in their own way, and at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way to cope.
Sometimes, after a death, organisations arrange formal counselling for staff. There is mixed evidence on this. Where people want counselling it can be helpful, but some types of psychological debriefing, such as critical incident stress debriefing, individually or as a group, can actually increase the likelihood of developing mental problems such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after a traumatic incident. So, it is important to be guided by what staff want – offer support but do not force people to take part if they don’t want, or feel ready to talk. Most people find that sensitively delivered colleague and managerial support is helpful. Often people avoid talking about the deceased person, or how they died, because they feel they do not know what to say. This can be unhelpful, especially soon after the death, and if possible, having sensitive, even if brief, conversations about the person who died can help those affected deal with the loss.
Some people find support groups and meeting others who have been bereaved by suicide helpful, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide coordinates a network of groups around the UK.
How Vetlife can help
In the shock and grief in the immediate aftermath of suicide it can be difficult to know what to do, but there are organisations who want to help, and who can support your practice:
- Vetlife Helpline is available by phone or email 24 hours a day for listening and emotional support, and can signpost you to further resources
- Vetlife Health Support can also help to support practices.
- Vetlife Financial Support can also support the families of vets who have been bereaved by suicide. Some life insurance policies do not cover deaths by suicide, and bank accounts can also be inaccessible to family for a time.
The resources below may also be of help.