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tsalvatore@mcesorg

    Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc.

    Comprehensive Behavioral Health Services MCES

    What

    Emergency Responders

    Need to Know

    About Suicide Loss

    A Suicide Postvention Handbook

    Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc.

    50 Beech Drive

    Norristown, PA 19403-5421

    January 2005

About this booklet:

    There are about 400 suicides every year in the five southeastern Pennsylvania counties. That’s roughly one suicide every 22 hours. Most of these deaths bring together two groups of people under very unpleasant circumstances. These are emergency responders and family members or others close to the victim.

    This booklet is for both these groups, but especially the Police Officers, Emergency Medical Technicians, and Crisis Intervention Specialists whose duties may:

    ; Put them at the scene of a recent suicide or

    ; Require them to notify a family about the loss of a loved one to suicide

    Suicides may not occur every day in your community, but you will inevitably be involved in the aftermath of one, if this has not already happened. Most emergency professionals are not really prepared for dealing with the people they encounter after a suicide.

    What do you say? What do you do? How do you help those struggling with this tragedy? How do your attitudes toward suicide affect your behavior? We are going to try to help you answer these questions and others like them.

    FYI: Herein suicide is “completed” not “committed.” Suicide has been decriminalized for a long time. Likewise an individual lost to suicide is a “victim” because suicide is the outcome of a process of psychological breakdown that can happen to anybody.

Copyright 2005 by Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc.

    This publication may be photocopied or reproduced by other means without modification of any type for free use in suicide loss prevention and postvention activities. Use or reproduction for any other purpose requires the written permission of MCES. An electronic copy is available at www.mces.org. Questions on the contents may be directed to Tony Salvatore at tsalvatore@mces.org or 610-279-6100, ext. 227.

    The comments and encouragement of EMS 305, the MCES psychiatric ambulance service, the MCES Crisis Center, the MCES Mobile Crisis Service, and other MCES professional staff who reviewed drafts of this booklet is greatly appreciated.

Contents:

What is suicide postvention?…………………………..………………………….…………………………….…………….4

Why do suicides happen?………………………………………………………………………………………………………….5

Who’s doing the dying and how?.………………………………………………………………..…………….………..…..6

Some misconceptions about suicide……………………………………………………………..……..…………………7

    .

    What is different about suicide loss?…………………..………………………………………….………….……….8

What are the immediate needs of suicide grievers?……………………………………..………….……....9

Postvention “First Aid” ……………………………………………………………………….……………………..…….…..10

Behaviors to Avoid if Possible.…………………………………………………………………………………..…………11

Some Things Best Not said…………………………………………………………………………………..….…….…....12

Questions that may come from Family and Friends………………………………………….……………..13

Suicide Grief Support Sources………………………………………………………………………….………………..14

Toward a Proactive Postvention Model………………………….……………………………………….…….……15

    Objective 7.5: By 2005, increase the proportion of those who provide key services to

    suicide survivors (i.e., emergency medical technicians, firefighters, law enforcement

    officers…) who have received training that addresses their own exposure to suicide and

    the unique need of suicide survivors.

    “First responders have the opportunity to set the tone for being respectful and sensitive to the needs of survivors and the need to be prepared themselves for the impact such events may have on their own

    thoughts and emotions.”

    National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action

    US Department of Health and Human Services (2001)

    www.mentalhealth.org/suicideprevention

What is suicide postvention?

    You already know something about prevention and intervention, but postvention may be new to you. Postvention includes all interventions that attempt to reduce the negative consequences that may affect those close to the victim after a suicide; has occurred.

    Postvention facilitates recovery of individuals emotionally devastated by a suicide. “Healing” or “getting over it” or “closure” don’t apply. Recovery means eventually rebuilding a normal life around the loss. This may take help and that’s postvention.

There are three objectives to any postvention effort:

    ; Ease the trauma and related effects of the suicide loss

    ; Prevent the onset of adverse grief reactions and complications

    ; Minimize the risk of suicidal behavior

    Postvention involves (i) providing aid and support with the grieving process and (ii) assisting those who may be vulnerable to anxiety and depressive disorders, suicidal ideation, self-medicating, and other harmful outcomes of severe grief reactions.

    Postvention should begin as soon as possible after the suicide loss. That’s where you come in. You are likely to be among the first to reach those close to a recent suicide victim. This booklet will help you get postvention started in the right direction. ----------------

    ; It is understood that there may be uncertainty about the cause of some

    deaths at the scene. We are concerned with the aftermath of deaths

    that will be reported as suicides. However, a postvention orientation will

    be helpful in any unnatural/unexpected death.

    [ 4 ]

Why do suicides happen?

    Every suicide is different and the circumstances leading up to it are always unique to the individual involved. However, the common underlying factor is intense psychological pain and extreme hopelessness on the part of the individual taking his or her life. Psychological pain arises when there is some seemingly irresolvable and totally frustrating situation in an individual’s life. This may be a compelling personal,

    interpersonal, financial loss and/or problem, or something else.

    Whatever the nature of this problem it is something that he/she cannot resolve. Coping and problem-solving skills fail. Next self-esteem and sense of control over his/her life diminishes significantly. This brings about hopelessness. Hopelessness may lead to suicidal thinking. Without strong protective factors (e.g., social supports, religion) and in the presence of high risk factors (e.g., drinking, access to a gun), suicide may occur. Death is the means not the end.

    The risk of suicide is greatly increased by drinking or using drugs, which lessen inhibitions and increase impulsiveness. These substances heighten vulnerability to thoughts of suicide and make things, like depression, much worst.

    Some suicides may be sudden and impulsive, but most are the result of a process that happens over many weeks or months. As it unfolds it offers many points for getting help. While not every suicide can realistically be prevented, suicide is preventable. Suicide also has a physiological dimension. Researchers have found that chemical imbalances in the body and faulty neural processes in the brain play a role in suicide.

For more information about suicide download a copy of “What Everyone Should Know

    About Suicide” at www.mces.org or call Montgomery County Emergency Service (MCES) at 610-279-6100 for a copy or e-mail tsalvatore@mces.org.

    [ 5 ]

Who’s doing the dying and how?

    There are 29000-30000 reported suicides in the US every year. In Delaware County there are about 60 suicides a year; in Montgomery County, there are 70 suicides.

    Men from their 20s to mid-80s represent about 80% of all suicide victims. Elders, those age 65 and older, account for about 20% of all suicides. Men 80-84 have the highest suicide rate of any age group. Regardless of age suicide is always a premature and unexpected death.

    Women complete suicide less often than men do because they tend to be less involved with alcohol, they use different means, and they do seek help. Older women rarely complete suicide. Females attempt suicide more than males.

    In regard to race and ethnicity the overwhelming majority of suicide victims are white, suicides in the Afro-American community are increasing. Suicides are uncommon among Asians and most Latinos. The suicide among non-white women of any age is very low.

    Firearms, most commonly handguns, are the lethal means in most suicides. Guns are involved in 65%-70% of male suicides across all age groups and in 40%-45% of adult female suicides. Guns are part of the reason that more males die by suicide than females. More women are now using guns to complete suicide than in the past.

    What do the numbers say? Most suicide calls involve an adult white male who died violently and was found by someone close to him in life. He left 6-8 folks behind who will be have a very hard time dealing with his loss. These are the people who will need postvention.

    For more statistical information about suicide in your county or municipality call the county health department (in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery counties) or go to www.dsf.health.state.pa.us/health/site/default.asp (PA Dept. of Health).

    [ 6 ]

Some misconceptions about suicide:

    Attitudes about suicide affect how you behave towards those close to the victim. You may share many popular myths about suicide or be influenced by beliefs about suicide that are part of your professional cultures.

    Some see suicide as the result of personal weakness. This misconception may lead to judging the victim and to marginalizing her or him as a “loser.” This attitude may come across even if nothing is said.

You may also see suicide as “making sense” in some cases (e.g., with devastating illness,

    disability, legal, or financial problems). This makes suicide seem like a normal or rational decision. Saying someone “committed suicide” conveys that he or she was in control, but really the pain is the driving force.

    As for mental illness, drugs, and alcohol, they increase the risk of suicide but don’t cause it. People with mental illness do take their lives, but their deaths are usually the result of a combination of factors.; Depression is found among most suicidal

    individuals, and drugs and alcohol make it worse. They also reduce inhibitions and can be lethal when mixed with suicidal ideation.

    Another myth is that victims really want to die and that they’ll “do it” sooner or later. Those who are suicidal don’t necessarily want to die, they just want to end unbearable

    emotional pain. Being suicidal is not a permanent condition. It passes, as you may have seen after taking someone to a crisis center.

    ----------------

    ; Suicide loss is especially detrimental to those with a serious mental illness

    such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. It may rapidly trigger

    relapse, crisis, or even suicidality. Such individuals should be referred to a

    crisis center or to their mental health provider ASAP. They will need more

    specialized help than is outlined here.

    [ 7 ]

What is different about suicide loss?

    One way to understand suicide loss is to think of it in terms of the layers of grief that it involves. It starts with the same grief that we all feel when we lose somebody that we loved or cared for a lot.

    The first layer relates to suicides being avoidable. Grievers feel responsible and guilty because they “didn’t do anything.” Parents agonize that they let their child down when most needed. Blame for the loss may also be directed at a third party (i.e., a therapist, school, friends, etc.).

    The second layer relates to the seeming intentional nature of a suicide. Those left to grieve may feel that the victim chose to leave them, which generates anger, betrayal, abandonment, and rejection. Emergency responders may notice these feelings.

    The third layer relates to suicide’s unanticipated nature, which leads to a search for the “why.” Most family members and friends never saw it coming. Being blindsided by suicide generates anxiety, fear, and a sense of vulnerability. These feelings come early.

    The fourth layer flows from the stigma and shame still attached to suicide. Churches and public attitudes are better than they used to be, but old beliefs die hard. Those close to the victim may even be blamed for the death.

    Helplessness shapes the last layer. It opens the door for hopelessness, the mindset behind the emotional pain that precipitated the victim’s suicide. Suicide grievers are at high risk of suicidal behavior. Many victims had family histories of suicide.

“Grief Counseling Resource Guide: A Field Manual” is a good overview of grief issues. It

    is available from the NY State Office of Mental Health at

    www.omh.state.ny.us/omhweb/grief

    [ 8 ]

What are the immediate needs of suicide grievers?

    In the first hours and days, suicide grievers may need any or all of the following:

    ; To see that what they are feeling is normal Those bereaved by suicide often

    think that they are suffering a severe psychiatric breakdown. To understand

    what they are going through try to think about a 9/11 happening in your head.

    ; Support Most people have no personal experience with a sudden, unexpected,

    and possibly violent death. Whatever got them through any previous deaths will

    fail them now. Suicide loss is best endured with help. Most suicide grievers

    benefit from contact with others who have lost loved ones to suicide. This is

    available through suicide loss support groups (see page 14).

    ; Time to deal with their loss and grief The usual 1-3 days of funeral leave was

    not designed with suicide loss in mind. Most grievers will not have the energy or

    motivation to go to work or school and they will not really be there if they do.

    They need to take things slowly and take care of themselves and their families.

    ; To know what to say to any children It is generally felt that kids should hear

    the truth. It is suggested that younger children be told that the death was

    caused by a brain illness that makes people want to hurt themselves. It should

    be explained that this illness can be treated and is preventable but that it is

    sometimes very hard to recognize.

    Suicide grievers are the secondary victims of the suicide. They manifest many of the physical and behavioral signs of victims of disasters or trauma.

    A booklet for suicide grievers entitled “Recovery from Suicide Loss” is available from Survivors of Suicide, Inc. at phillysos.tripod.com. A supply of printed copies will be provided free on request to emergency responders by calling 215-545-2242 or sending

    an e-mail to phillysos@hotmail.com.

    [ 9 ]

Postvention “First Aid”

    Suicide postvention isn’t in your job description, but you are in a unique position to help. You don’t have to become a grief counselor. Here’s what you do:

    A. Establish rapport with griever(s) Extend offer of help and caring by “being

    there.” Introduce yourself and identify other responders on the scene. If you

    feel that you are forcing things, just back off. If not, sit down with them.

    B. Initiate grief normalization Let them discuss their feelings and concerns. Be

    ready for a lot of emotion and conflicting sentiments. Don’t try to sort things

    out for them. They’ll get to that later. Let them know that their emotional

    turmoil is okay given the abnormal nature of the loss.

    C. Facilitate understanding of critical incident processing Explain the investigative

    activities that occur with any unnatural death. Tell them why the ME will take

    the body and how they can arrange pick-up by the funeral director.

    D. Assist in mobilizing the support system Help grievers identify those who may be

    resources, e.g., family physician, clergyperson, other family members, or trusted

    friends. Don’t say they have to make these contacts, just note they may be

    helpful.

    E. Share information on community services Provide contact information on local

    grief support resources like Survivors of Suicide or other services, which the

    grievers may reach out to if necessary.

    F. Encourage their follow-through and withdraw Urge them to see their family

    physician as soon as possible. Grief isn’t a medical problem but it impacts health

    and may aggravate pre-existing conditions.

    These simple actions can get the family started toward recovery from their loss.

    We know that being involved with a suicide is not easy for emergency responders so after you’ve helped the family, please remember to take care of yourself. Suicides can be intense and may produce critical incident stress.

    [ 10 ]

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