Professionals who work in the mental health field are not immune to loss by suicide. In fact, they and professionals in every field can succumb to suicidal thoughts themselves or lose patients or family members they are trying to help. The aftermath is often filled with additional burdens centering around their career role.
Counselors, ministers, and others may or may not have specialized training or experience in this area but often feel they should have been able to help. This is a common agony before and after suicide, but when you are responsible for care and aware of this kind of dangerous situation, the pressure is enormous.
If you work with people who disclose they are struggling with thoughts of ending their lives or if you know a professional who may be in this position, share these five ways to cope. The pressures of 2020 have increased stress for everyone in a year of pandemic, racial uncertainty and unrest, and political and economic upheaval. Now is a particularly important time to add knowledge and coping tools to your workplace and your personal life.
1. Realize there is never enough education. No matter what you know or think you know, seeking the latest information from reliable sources, people who experience suicidal ideation, survivors of suicide loss and available training programs are vital. On-going study should be in depth and filled with first-person accounts. Suicide happens in a huge variety of circumstances to every age group. Yet, unlike other problems, these thoughts prompt individuals to hide what they are feeling. Part of that is due to stigma, but each person and each situation can be unique. Education can give you the best possible chance to intervene in positive ways that help others understand what is happening to them.
2. Understand lies are normal. Because of the “cloak” depression or stress pulls over an individual, he may feel helpless on the inside and still project confidence and healing. Because of this tendency, it is imperative to somehow work with family members, both through educational efforts for them and in gaining insight for you. Confidentiality and privacy can be maintained by accepting written statements from those who are around your client the most. They know more than you do about their loved one’s behavior and motivations and can give you valuable information. It is up to you to ferret out what is valuable and what might be vindictive or misconstrued, but a clearer picture of what is happening remains of utmost worth.
3. Abandon old tricks. Do not believe the blatant lie that “100 percent of suicides are preventable.” Do not further that idea. Few people will be able to adhere to a promise, signed or verbal, to refrain from ending their lives when the pressure to do so is great enough. Do discuss what their loss would mean to those they love. Think about honest feedback sessions that could involve family members, where appropriate and with your patient’s permission. Be honest about what is happening. It is happening to them and those around them. There is no reason to be ashamed, and it is no one’s fault. Like cancer or heart disease, mental and behavioral conditions spring from physical and emotional imbalances, often created by tremendous stress factors, some of which can’t be changed. Treat the whole person and the whole family. Provide coping techniques and reassurance that these issues can be addressed. Offer additional resources that can be used between office visits.
4. Take care of your own mental and physical health. Your job is important, but if done properly, it adds a lot of stress to your personal and work life. Find someone to talk with about your own problems and about the toll loss takes. If you have not lost someone to suicide, prepare yourself for that outcome. Today, it is becoming uncommon to find someone who has not been affected by this type of traumatic loss. Begin journaling, along with your educational studies, and read about things that help in the terrible aftermath of suicide.
5. Build two circles of support. The first one is around you and can include self-care, professional guidance, wellness activities (meditation, exercise and more), as well as peer support. The second is around each of your clients. The same model can be used for families. Include what you learn through your specialized study, coping techniques, peer support resources, and suggestions for adding medical and spiritual support and addressing stress and anything that complicates treatment.
If this sounds like a lot of work, divide it into small bits. Be assured that you will reap the rewards. Your understanding will grow and your own stress level decrease. The lives you impact will enhance your profession incalculably.