The findings of a new report, published today to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), will resonate for the many Australians who have experienced the shock, pain and bewilderment of discovering that someone known to them has died by suicide.
In preparing the report, researchers from Suicide Prevention Australia and the University of New England collaborated to survey more than 3000 people about their exposure to suicide, and how the experience impacted them.
As noted below by Dr Myfanwy Maple, Suicide Prevention Australia Director and suicide bereavement researcher at the University of New England, a striking finding of the study is that the effects of suicide can extend far beyond family members or even close friends, creating an ever-expanding “ripple effect”.
Dr Myfanwy Maple writes:
The field of suicide bereavement is maturing. There is enough evidence that tells us that there are adverse outcomes for some people who are exposed to suicide death.
Those of us in the suicide bereavement research field know this. We know the devastation, pain and suffering that occurs after a suicide for those close to the deceased. In stories of lived experience of suicide and from health professionals, we hear about the ripple effect of suicide bereavement from families, friends, colleagues and other close networks.
While we know that there can be negative outcomes for people exposed to suicide death, we don’t know for whom the outcomes are adverse, when or how best to target those who require support or what support is needed. In providing support after a suicide, we often place our focus on bereavement and the grief felt by family members and close social networks of the person who has died, which is not always the full picture of support needed.
Who needs support after suicide?
What about the people we can’t see? What about those who have perceived closeness to that person but aren’t part of the immediate assumed circles of closeness? And what about the impact of those exposed to a death who aren’t close to that person?
A new national report released today, on World Suicide Prevention Day is the first Australian study to explore the exposure to, and impact of, suicide among a large community-residing adult population.
What has been brought to light in this survey of more than 3000 people is that there are many people from diverse backgrounds who may need support when exposed to a suicide death or attempt.
The results make it clear that we need to consider the needs of those who are exposed to suicide who have not traditionally been included in postvention support strategies, and to devise ways of providing adequate formal and informal care.
For example, the research tells us that there are workplace environments where the impact of exposure to suicide needs to be better understood. Examples include front line emergency staff, train drivers, counsellors, teachers and other health professionals.
The survey also found that perceptions of closeness of relationship were sometimes as strong or stronger than kinship: 54% of respondents reported deaths of people who were non-kin and of those people, 30% considered themselves to be close or very close to the person who died by suicide.
This tells us that notions of closeness are not always familial connections and that for some groups such as young people, the connections to non-kin relationships are more expansive, and these broader networks require attention.
Knowing this of course has implications for service provision and highlights the need to broaden our scope for delivering adequate postvention programs.
A far-reaching problem needs far-reaching solutions
The research tells us that the ripple effect of suicide is far-reaching and the lived experiences of suicide (defined by Suicide Prevention Australia as having experienced suicidal thoughts, survived a suicide attempt, cared for someone who has attempted suicide, been bereaved by suicide, or been touched by suicide in another way) are diverse.
Talking to people in the suicide prevention and mental health sector, and from what we already know in suicide bereavement academia, it is not news that suicide is a public health issue.
This World Suicide Prevention Day it is timely to remember that suicide is mostly preventable. To ensure we are meeting the needs of those in distress we need to focus our attention well beyond a medicalised model, and instead focus on a whole of community response.
This Australian first research has uncovered the extent of the impact of suicide in this country, showing us that it touches so many more lives than previously reported. As devastating as the report findings are, we need this information to understand the breadth of suicide in our communities and inform where we direct funds and expertise in suicide prevention.
We need to make the most of the valuable information shared by those with lived experience and learn from the incredible stories of survival, resilience and hope. Together we can create a positive ripple of change and hope.
*Dr Myfanwy Maple is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Chair of Research, in the School of Health at the University of New England, New South Wales, and a director of Suicide Prevention Australia.
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