When clients kill themselves:

How therapists cope with client suicide

By John Soderlund


Freud survived the death of a client by suicide, as have thousands of therapists after him. Despite the frequency with which it happens, the scarcity of the research on how therapists deal with the suicide of a client smacks of a collective avoidance of what can be a massive personal shock equivalent in magnitude to the loss of a parent. What literature there is suggests therapists react to suicide in two ways. As humans, they may face grief, guilt, loss and anger not very different from that experienced by others left behind: simply, they react as humans who have lost another with whom they have had a close relationship.  But therapists also have to deal with the death in terms of their special role in that person's life and in the society of which the client formed a part. There is no right way to deal with such a loss. Nonetheless, in this article, we present a handful of what the limited consensus view seems to suggest are ways of easing the passage when dealing with the loss of a client to suicide.

Your own emotional reactions

The research says an acute emotional reaction is likely to follow the suicide and last for a week to a month. This is the time during which support is most needed.  Resnick delineates three stages in coming to terms with the suicide. During the first, psychological resuscitation, the survivor's emotional revival with support from a trusted colleague is important. The second, psychological rehabilitation is the processing of the loss and the third, psychological renewal, is about moving beyond the grief and establishing new contacts and relationships.

If your initial response is focused principally on anxiety about the professional ramifications, the self-doubt in your professional capacity and the idea that others are blaming you, you are in company with many other survivors of client suicide. You may also feel rage at the client for killing themselves or at the institution for which you work. Chemtob et al found that 57% of psychiatrists and 49% of psychologists who had a client commit suicide reported post-traumatic symptoms comparable to groups of individuals who had experienced the recent death of a parent.

Expect to deal with the suicide in what may feel like primitive ways. Therapists who have lost clients through suicide have been known to forget details of the case or distort features thereof. One psychiatrist admitted to newspaper reporters that he had prescribed the sleeping pills with which a patient committed suicide. It later transpired that the pills had been prescribed by other physicians. Blame, responsibility and inadequacy are most common. You may fear any number of adverse reactions from the family, your colleagues, other patients who hear about the suicide and from your profession as a whole.

It can be an isolated, lonely time. You may feel an urgency to avoid potentially suicidal clients in future at all costs. Some therapists experience identifications with the dead client in their dreams while some have been recorded to find their identification manifested in being accident-prone for some weeks after the death.

You can also expect, though, that you will have instincts to draw some professional and personal lessons from the death. Many have reported that a client's suicide has improved their professional judgment, made them more sensitive personally and as therapists and enlarged their psychological horizons. Factors which are likely to increase the emotional impact of the suicide on the therapist are:

- Pre-existing stress in the practitioner due to a high work load;

- The depth of the attachment between therapist and client more than the length of acquaintance;

- The therapist's ignorance about what the professional ramifications are of the death;

- The availability and use of supports by the therapist;

- Whether the psychologist was working alone or as part of a team with the client.

In general

Keep track of what you have done, who you spoke to and any information given by colleagues, legal advisors and family members of the deceased.

The funeral

Attending the funeral can be helpful in allowing you to join the grieving with the rest of the family. It may also tie some emotional ends up for you in respect of your own relationship with the client.

The police

The police will probably open an investigation into the death. That doesn't mean they are gunning for you. Consult your legal counsel before making any statements. If it is comforting to do so, have legal counsel available at questioning, especially in the case of a more complicated suicide to which you may have been a witness or in which there are questions about your role.

Your colleagues

If you follow none of the other pointers given here, at least seek the company of a trusted colleague. The number of therapists who have survived the suicide of a client is probably far higher than you think and many of those you think may not have had a patient commit suicide might just not have made it public knowledge.

Therapist survivors of suicide are unanimous that formal and informal consultation with colleagues is one of the most important and helpful actions to take as soon after the suicide as possible. Dubbed the psychological autopsy or postvention, it is something you must seek out as soon as possible. It is a way of bringing a close to the shock of the death and dissecting the feelings you may have, however inappropriate you think they might be.

Your lawyer and your indemnity

Contact your lawyer before making any statements to the press, lawyers or aggrieved relatives. Let your insurer know timeously of the suicide. Many professional indemnity schemes provide legal advice in these sorts of situations to avoid a more messy situation in the event of a claim of negligence against you.

Your notes

If you have been keeping comprehensive notes, there should be no problems with an inquiry. Notes should also be made after the death, avoiding drawing too many elaborate conclusions about the reasons for it.

Sending accounts

This is one of the most difficult tasks after the suicide. You may be inclined, like many people who make use of therapeutic services of some description, to equate the outcome with the quality of the treatment. But this is not the case with professional services like therapy; you are billing for your knowledge and your time spent trying to help your client. At least some writers think the failure to send accounts may imply guilt. Others argue this reflects an unnecessary preoccupation with the legal implications of the suicide, so you are probably best off using your own discretion.


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