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Suicide Bereavement: What About Us?

My name is Dr Sharon McDonnell and I lost my brother to suicide in 1989.

My experience isn’t as rare as you might imagine. Around 6,000 people die by suicide in the UK every year - that’s about 16 people every day. On average, around 135 people are affected by each of these suicides, and the impact is severe. The people closest to a victim of suicide have a much higher risk of themselves dying by suicide - up to three times higher than the rest of the UK population.

There is no national specialist service for those bereaved by suicide in the NHS. They are often signposted to charities, even though their difficulties mean they may need help from psychiatric services. However, the majority of people bereaved by suicide are unable to access any form of support at a time of high risk and intense need.

From one at risk group to another

This is compounded with the fact that the majority of healthcare professionals are anxious and uncertain how to respond to and care for people bereaved by suicide, often due to lack of training.

Ironically, these healthcare professionals, who are themselves part of a group that’s known to be at higher risk of suicide, are expected to care for those bereaved by suicide, another high risk group, without any support or guidance. This is not only an ethical issue, but also a major public health and mental health problem that is only starting to be addressed in this country.

My personal drive to help others

As a direct result of my loss, I have specialised in suicide bereavement research for 18 years.  

I am currently leading a national suicide bereavement survey, which aims to explore the impact of suicide in the UK. This survey has identified the magnitude of the problem and the level of unmet need in the UK, giving over 7,000 people bereaved and affected by suicide a collective voice.

Preliminary findings of the survey, announced today at Suicide Bereavement UK’s International Conference in Manchester, reveal that  95% of respondents reported that suicide had either a major or moderate impact on them. These results only highlight the urgency of providing support for those bereaved by suicide.  

Evidence-based suicide bereavement training

My research isn’t just about understanding the problem - I’m also working on ways to provide a solution. My research at the University of Manchester has developed a new suicide bereavement training programme for healthcare professionals, the first of its kind internationally.  

The training has been informed by a three year study funded by the NIHR Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) Programme, which identified the vulnerability and perceived needs of those bereaved by suicide  and healthcare professionals responsible for their care.

The Postvention: Assisting those Bereaved By Suicide (PABBS) training is a highly interactive one-day workshop designed with GPs and mental healthcare professionals in mind. The training includes a workbook, nine film clips and a 60 page manual.

The PABBS suicide bereavement training recognises that supporting those bereaved by suicide is a key component of suicide prevention. It aims to enable healthcare professionals to increase their knowledge, confidence, skills, and provide a framework and plan for immediate and ongoing support for those bereaved by suicide.

The training also encourages healthcare professionals to consider and recognise their own emotional or self-care needs and develop a strategy or support structure that will be available to them if a patient dies by suicide.

Research into practice

Having translated the findings from my NIHR research into evidence-based suicide bereavement training, I then created a company to commercialise it. The support provided by NIHR has been extremely helpful and has helped to ensure a smooth transition, which has ultimately enabled me to educate health professionals how to respond to and care for those bereaved by suicide.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recently published guidelines on preventing suicide in community and custodial settings. The guidelines recommend that friends, family, classmates and co-workers affected by suicide should be given information on what help is available to them. They also stress the importance of caring for those bereaved by suicide and the provision of training to help address this unmet need.

Turning a challenge into an opportunity

One of the aims of England’s suicide prevention strategy is ‘to provide better information and support for those bereaved or affected by suicide.’ Giving people affected by suicide the right support can in turn reduce their risk of suicide at an extremely difficult time in their lives. However, if we are to achieve this, it is essential that more healthcare professionals receive appropriate training.

We would like to see evidence-based suicide bereavement training made widely available for NHS staff, to help them to develop their knowledge of how to respond to and care for those bereaved by suicide. These people are dependent on healthcare professionals’ sensitivity, compassion and care at a time of high risk and intense need.

It is my hope that the provision of PABBS evidence-based suicide bereavement training will help to ensure that families bereaved by suicide will receive timely, appropriate and compassionate support, unlike my family, when my brother died by suicide in 1989.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.