Special journal edition on suicide bereavement and postvention research showcases global studies and advancements

Posted 24th August 2023 in Sector news

Those bereaved by suicide are at a greater risk of mental health concerns and suicidal thoughts and behaviour than the general population or other bereaved individuals. Research to better understand suicide bereavement is crucial to inform postvention approaches and support people following a suicide loss.

Dr Karl Andriessen, Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, along with Dr Karolina Krysinska and Professor Dr Yossi Levi-Belz were recent guest editors for a special edition of International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health titled Suicide Bereavement and Postvention: Advances in Research, Practice and Policy.

The special edition includes a wide range of studies examining suicide bereavement from around the world and highlights new developments in the field. 

Everymind spoke with Dr Karl Andriessen about some interesting new findings included in this issue, what the evidence tells us about supporting people bereaved by suicide, and future research directions.


Exploring the research papers published in the special edition, what are some new findings and perspectives on suicide bereavement presented in the research?


There were a number of interesting new findings published in this special issue.  

One study demonstrated that feelings of belongingness and social support had a positive impact on depression scores in people bereaved by suicide. This is important as we are always looking for clues that may help us in supporting people bereaved by suicide through the grieving process. 

Another found that feelings of guilt were associated with the development of prolonged grief disorder. Prolonged grief disorder is a diagnosable disorder following bereavement that has been investigated for a few decades now, so this finding may help to identify risks and target clinical interventions. 

Most suicide bereavement research is conducted with adult populations, but generally, older adults 60 – 70+ years of age are not represented in studies. A study in this issue was conducted specifically with older adults and found that their grief experiences and coping were comparable to the broader adult population, but their understanding of the meaning of suicide and suicide bereavement was specific to their context of older age. This has implications for working with older adults and supporting them through suicide bereavement.  


What does the research tell us about peer support for people bereaved by suicide?


Overall, the research indicates peer-led support (usually face-to-face or online support groups) has positive outcomes for people bereaved by suicide. But some studies, and also a review of the literature in this issue, indicated that peer support groups are not always helpful.

For some people, it can be more burdensome than it is helpful because they are confronted with the grief and distress of others and may not be able to cope while still struggling with their own. For those people, it may be counterproductive to participate in peer support initiatives and of greater benefit to engage in individual support. There is no one-size-fits-all type of support and people may benefit from different types depending on their needs, and where they are in their grief processes. 

The research also indicates that a combination of professional and peer support is more effective in successful group facilitation than one of them working separately. Peer support workers have particular insights and sensitivities that clinicians may not have, but clinicians may have particular knowledge and skills to contribute.


What does the research tell us about how we can support people and communities bereaved by suicide?


Research indicates that people bereaved by suicide are best supported by targeting their grief specifically and not associated issues, for example, social functioning. It is important to acknowledge that they have experienced a loss by suicide, which is the main cause of their grief and distress, rather than try to work around it. 

Training of support people is very important. There are issues that are more pronounced in suicide bereavement compared to other types of bereavement, such as feelings of guilt, rejection, and anger, as well as the risk of impacts on mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviours in people bereaved by suicide that counsellors and peer support workers need be skilled to adequately deal with. 

The research also indicates that support is often most effective when it is offered over time in multiple sessions, whether it's from support groups or individual counselling, due to the evolving nature of the grief process.  

Some studies looked at the impact of suicides on mental health professionals who lose a client to suicide. It was found the impact of suicide can be as severe as in other people bereaved by suicide and that they may benefit from peer support to help normalise their experience and also to acknowledge their grief. 


From your knowledge and perspective, what aspects or areas of bereavement research would benefit most from further research?


There are population groups for whom little research exists regarding suicide bereavement. For example, older adults mentioned previously, as well as men. Generally, study participants are predominantly female, so we do not know a lot about the coping of suicide bereavement in men. Further, culturally diverse groups are very often overlooked, as we tend to look at mainstream populations and types of support and services. 

Overall, there is still a huge question about what is effective in suicide bereavement support. There are still a lot of other questions, for example, regarding the prevention and treatment of prolonged grief disorder or the prevention of suicidal thoughts or behaviours in people bereaved by suicide. Those are still big questions, which are also very difficult to study due to the large samples needed. That's usually a challenge in research. 

You can read the special edition of Suicide Bereavement and Postvention: Advances in Research, Practice and Policy by clicking the link below.

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