Suicide Postvention

Suicide postvention is a response or reaction to a community or individual following a suicide attempt or completion by someone known to that community in order to facilitate healthy psychological adjustment. Suicide postvention typically involves counselors or others in paraprofessional roles providing factual information about the attempt or completion, educating those affected by the suicide about the expected range of emotional and psychological responses, offering referrals for further psychological services, and providing opportunities for follow-up consultations.

Counselors participating in suicide postvention strive to ensure that those affected by the suicide are coping in a healthy manner that will lead to resuming normal functioning rather than developing chronic, severe psychological symptoms. For example, postvention programs educate survivors on how to distinguish between expected bereavement symptoms and prolonged, more severe symptoms of depression that are cause for concern. One indicator of healthy adjustment to a suicide comes when survivors are able to talk about both positive and negative attributes of the deceased. With suicide, in particular, it is also important for postvention to help survivors move on from the question of why an individual committed suicide, because fixating on this difficult question can keep survivors from progressing through the bereavement process.

Postvention programs also prepare communities to expect a wide range of emotional or cognitive reactions to a suicide, depending on the survivors’ proximity to the victim. For example, some survivors might feel anger toward the victim, while others who have experienced the long-term depression of or threat of suicide from the victim might feel a sense of relief when finality is reached. Both of these reactions can be normalized during postvention.

Postvention programs also strive to ensure that others do not attempt or complete suicide in response to the original event. Well-meaning communities may highly publicize a suicide in a way that gives significant attention to the victim or portrays the individual in a heroic light. However, suicide postvention programs are focused on acknowledging the individual’s or community’s loss without glorifying suicide in a way that could entice others to attempt it in order to receive similar attention. As part of a postvention response, counselors may facilitate community discussions about how to best commemorate or honor the victim’s life without glorifying the death.

Communities, such as schools, churches, or other organizations, are best served by comprehensive suicide postvention plans that are circulated among all potential responders before a suicide occurs. Such plans include information about what local psychological services are available to those affected by a suicide and identify who will serve as the overall postvention coordinator, media liaison, and community relations liaison.

Comprehensive suicide postvention programs also can include what some researchers have termed a “psychological autopsy.” The psychological autopsy involves learning about the events leading up to the victim’s suicidal behavior, possibly by reviewing medical records or interviewing friends or family who might have known about the victim’s thoughts, feelings, problems, or behaviors.

Overall, postvention programs are valuable to communities because they can help return affected individuals and groups to presuicide levels of functioning relatively quickly while simultaneously preventing copycat suicides.

References:

  1. Campbell, F. R., Cataldie, L., Mcintosh, J., & Millet, K. (2004). An active postvention program. Crisis, 25, 30-32.
  2. Celotta, B. (1995). The aftermath of suicide: Postvention in a school setting. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 17, 397-113.
  3. Clark, S. (2001). Bereavement after suicide: How far have we come and where do we go from here? Crisis, 22, 102-108.
  4. Grieger, I., & Greene, P. (1998). The psychological autopsy as a tool in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 39, 388-389.
  5. Petretic-Jackson, P., Pitman, L., & Jackson, T. (1996). Suicide postvention programs for university athletic departments. Crisis Intervention, 3, 25-41.
  6. Stone, G. L. (1993). Psychological challenges and responses to a campus tragedy: The Iowa experience. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 8, 259-271.

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