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Coping When a Patient Commits Suicide

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by Randy Dotinga

This piece originally appeared in Clinical Psychiatry News on July 21, 2017.

Most psychiatrists raised their hands in a conference room at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association when a presenter asked whether they’d ever had a patient die from suicide. Moments later, one rose and described her own devastating experience with a patient who killed himself.

 “We’d talked for 100 nights over 12 years. If a call came in at night, I knew who it was,” she said. Then he committed suicide, forcing her to question her assumptions about her ability to help others.

“I had this unconscious fantasy that I could will people to keep on living,” she said.

“We spend so much time with our patients,” added another audience member, that “it’s almost like a family member dying. Just overwhelming sadness.”

When a patient kills himself or herself, “it can be a powerful experience,” said Eric M. Plakun, MD, one of the two presenters at the session. “Suicide is very complicated, because the patient is both the victim and the perpetrator of the murder. It’s a very complicated set of feelings that you end up dealing with.”

A 2015 meta-analysis estimated that there is 1 suicide for every 676 inpatient admissions, and a 20-year prospective study found that 1% of 6,891 psychiatric outpatients committed suicide (Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2015 Mar;131[3]:174-84), (J Consult Clin Psychol. 2000 Jun;68[3]:371-7).

To make things more complex for psychiatrists, suicides and attempted suicides are frequent triggers for malpractice suits, accounting for 5.4% overall and 17% of those directed at psychiatrists, said psychologist and copresenter Jane Tillman, PhD, director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn. (However, a 2014 U.S. study found that “in malpractice, psychiatry accounted for a small percentage of overall claims and settlements” (Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2014 May;26[2]:91-6).

In 2006, Dr. Tillman released a study based on her interviews with 12 therapists whose patients had killed themselves during or shortly after treatment.

“They spoke to me about affective experiences like feeling incredibly sad. Some felt angry and rageful,” Dr. Tillman told the APA audience. “One young therapist, a trainee, told me that her patient’s father called to tell her the patient had died by suicide. ‘After I spoke to the patient’s father,’ the therapist recalled, ‘the mother got onto the phone and screamed. I broke down and started crying. Hearing the sound of a mother who had lost her child went right through me.’ ”

Another therapist felt “angry at everyone” and guilty, too, after a patient killed herself without calling for help. And Dr. Tillman heard from therapists who worried about their professional lives, how they’d be viewed, and whether they’d be cut off from their peers.

“I had the sense of people pulling away from me and me pulling away from them,” one therapist told Dr. Tillman. “Some reached out to me early but they didn’t follow through, and I didn’t follow through.”

Young therapists face unique challenges, Dr. Tillman said. “They felt foolish, as if they’d been grandiose,” she said. “They pathologize hope.”

Copresenter Dr. Plakun, associate medical director and director of biopsychosocial advocacy at Austen Riggs, offered these tips to psychiatrists:

  • Support colleagues whose patients kill themselves. “Convene and participate in a nonjudgmental review of the suicide. Be there, try to be part of this discussion, share your own experiences. And [be] aware of the inevitability of countertransference of guilt, anger, and blaming.”
     
  • “If you are the person who had a patient die by suicide, avoid isolation; call your insurance carrier for consultation about risk management issues, and prepare yourself for contact with the family.”
     
  • Take special care before meetings with family: Understand the confidentiality issues and remember where the focus belongs. “You’re there to meet the family’s needs, not yours primarily. There’s no reason to castigate yourself and take blame. But that doesn’t mean you can’t express genuine sorrow about the loss.”
     
  • Seek professional support and focus on self-care. “Try to preserve a space in our families and in our personal friendships where we can continue to live our lives and not be haunted by these things in our relationships with partners, spouses, children. And we need to grieve well. It’s a terrible loss, and it’s something that we need to pay attention to and take seriously.”

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