Study: Family, Friends Challenged in Dealing with Suicide

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Relatives and friends did not always receive clear and unambiguous warning signals from a suicidal individual. Even when it was obvious that something was seriously wrong, they could not always summon the courage to act, according to the results of a recent study.

Relatives and friends did not always receive clear and unambiguous warning signals from a suicidal individual. Even when it was obvious that something was seriously wrong, they could not always summon the courage to act, according to the results of a recent study.

Powerful emotional blocks, particularly fear, face family members and friends of those who may be suicidal. They may be wary of intruding on another person’s emotional life or afraid of damaging their relationship by saying something.

“Even doctors with many years’ training and experience find it very difficult to assess whether or not a person is at imminent risk of suicide. Family members and friends find themselves in uncharted territory, with no training and little public information to guide them,” Christabel Owens, MD, of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. Owens was the lead author of the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal.

For the study, researchers investigated 14 suicides aged 18-34 in London, the South West and South Wales. None were receiving specialist mental health care. The researchers asked relatives and friends of the deceased what they had witnessed in the period leading up to the suicide and how they had interpreted what they saw. In all, 31 parents, partners, siblings, friends, and colleagues took part.

Unlike conditions such as stroke, where national awareness campaigns have been built around the very obvious signals to look for, this study emphasizes that for suicide there is no clear message as to what to do, this despite research literature suggesting that warning signs for suicide do exist.

“They may know that a relative or friend is troubled but have absolutely no idea that suicide is a possibility,” Owens said. “The person may give very indirect hints, possibly when disinhibited by alcohol, that they are thinking of killing themselves, but it is difficult for others to know how seriously to take these messages and how to respond to them.”

Where emotional or psychological pain is involved, the study indicates, people do not seek medical help lightly. For those who are suicidal, consulting a doctor and confessing those feelings is often a last resort.

“It is sad that, in the course of our research, we have repeatedly come across examples of people who did go to their GP [general practitioner], were given a cursory risk assessment and sent home with little or no support, and subsequently killed themselves,” Owens said.

“In other cases, a relative has taken their concerns to a GP and asked for advice, and has been told that the case cannot be discussed with them for reasons of patient confidentiality and that the person must visit the GP themselves.”

SourceStudy Highlights Challenges to Family and Friends from Suicide [Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry]

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