When a Family Member Survives a Suicide Attempt
With hope comes the very real dread that he will try to kill himself again.
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Three times, I’ve received a phone call telling me that my family member has made a suicide attempt. Three times, I’ve felt the same gut-wrenching grief and confusion mixed with a hint of anger. And every time, there’s been a sliver of hope too, because three times, he has survived.
It feels like a small miracle each time, but it’s not cause to celebrate. Because with hope comes the very real dread that he will try again. There's a powerless feeling that you get when someone you love seems to want to die. But over time I've discovered that there are ways to show support and find hope when things seem hopeless.
The greatest risk of repeat suicide attempts is within three months to a year of the first. “It's safe to say once a person has tried to take his life, the chances increase that he will try again,” says Edward M. Hallowell, Massachusetts-based psychiatrist and author of the memoir Because I Come From a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist. “Every effort should be made to address whatever the underlying problems were and are, and to offer solutions—as protections against subsequent attempts—right away. This is a time for families to get all hands on deck, so to speak, to mobilize all possible resources.”
The problem is, many families don’t know how to mobilize after their loved one returns from their stint in the psych ward (one which usually only lasts a few days). Slapped with a “stable” diagnosis, a prescription or two, and instructions to seek therapy, those who have attempted suicide often arrive home in an extremely vulnerable state of mind. And for some, the problems that drove them to make the suicide attempt haven’t gone away, and they may have in fact gotten worse.
Ultimately what happens after an attempted suicide depends on the social support system around the patient, says Prakash Masand, psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence in New York City. “If people around the patient come to his or her aid, get them the right help, the right treatment and diagnosis, it can be great.” However, he tells me that if friends and family even subtely blame the patient, or tell him that they were let down or disappointed by the suicide attempt, that feeds into the sense of hopelessness and potential for future suicide attempts.
Some people, in the midst of experiencing the trauma of almost losing a family member, might accuse her or him of being selfish, for not thinking about how their actions would impact those around them. Daniel Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, knows from experience that many families get hung up on asking why: “Why would you do this to your kids? Why would you do this to me?”
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“These statements completely miss the point about suicide, and what suicide really is,” Reidenberg says. “Try to learn and understand the realities of suicide and mental illness. Try to understand that your loved one isn’t doing this to hurt you or get back at you or in any way negatively impact your life. They don’t have that kind of control.”
That’s why it’s so difficult for some family members to accept that their loved one may not recover immediately. “You can’t say to somebody who’s got cancer or diabetes, ‘Just get over it, don’t do it anymore,’” Reidenberg says. “It’s going to take a lot of time, and take a lot of work. We can’t do that work for them, or make them do that work. Us getting frustrated at them or their lack of progress…doesn’t help anybody.”
To help prevent against another suicide attempt, Masand recommends that family members and friends keep a vigilant eye out for the symptoms of depression, address the risk factors, and make sure the patient receives the correct diagnoses. “With clinical depression and bipolar disorder, unfortunately it can take up to ten years to get the correct diagnosis in some cases,” Masand says. “Make sure your therapist properly screens for every possible mental health condition.”
Family members should also remember to take care of themselves. Masand notes that those closest to the person can experience a range of emotions including disbelief, depression, trouble sleeping, anger, fear, and grief, change in appetite, and other types of stress. “If you are very close to the person who attempted to take his own life, you should take inventory of your own mental health because the attempted suicide of someone can have a lasting effect on you,” Masand says. “It’s important for friends and family members not to blame themselves and not to be afraid to seek help.”
“Truly, a suicide attempt is a chance for a family to grow,” Hallowell says. “It is a terrifying way to grow. But if you stare down the fear—by not worrying alone and by bringing in enough supports—you can turn the pain into growth.”
I still worry every day about my family member, and I know that will never change. I’ve also had to accept that there’s only so much that I and anyone else in my family can do to keep him alive. But while he controls his fate, that doesn’t mean we have to sit back and watch the worst unfold. We work on compassion every day, in hopes that we may just be able to help prevent a future attempt.
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