Suicide is a subject that has now come to the attention of the media, where the focus is almost always on prevention. The situation of those left behind when someone chooses to end their own life is rarely addressed.
Their fate seems trivial compared to the tragic fate of the deceased. Yet survivors also need support and help as they embark on the long and arduous path to healing.
SUICIDE AND SOCIETY
Over a thousand people in Switzerland take their own lives every year. They leave behind partners, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends and acquaintances.
Friends, neighbours, colleagues, teachers, and acquaintances are often at a loss how to react following a suicide and consequently feel helpless and out of their Depth.
They convey their condolences, of course, and perhaps offer practical help at first. But as the days, weeks, and months go by, this may well change. Eventually, the subject of the suicide itself and the survivors’ distress will probably be avoided altogether. This will give rise to a complicity of silence that will weigh heavily on the bereaved and leave them feeling even more alone.
Those who are ready to engage in dialogue are often rather too eager with well-meant advice. Survivors then feel misunderstood and may become increasingly withdrawn.
Their circle of friends and acquaintances will probably shrink, and in the course of time may well dwindle to just a few loyal individuals. Remaining supportive and caring after a suicide is very hard.
One reason for the helplessness experienced by the survivor’s friends and acquaintances is the fact that suicide is traditionally considered morally reprehensible. Those who take their own lives were for a long time condemned as sinners, as they still are today in some cultures.
To outsiders, it may look as if the suicide had to do with a breakdown in family relations, which is why the whole family may be stigmatized. Something as unfathomable as suicide cries out to be explained, and one way of doing that is to apportion blame. Thus the family has still more pain and ignominy heaped upon it. Not surprisingly, many families choose to keep the true cause of death secret, if only to protect themselves.
Another reason for the perception of suicide as a taboo subject is the widespread tendency to link it to mental illness, which also has a social stigma attached to it. Survivors may therefore feel shunned both on account of the suicide itself and the assumption that mental illness was to blame for it. Yet the true causes and the larger context are bound to be complex and can probably never be fully fathomed.
Although suicide is now regarded as the ultimate expression of autonomy and freedom and hence as a fundamental human right, this way of looking at it has little to do with those who are truly at risk, who are driven by the mental anguish engendered by what they perceive as a hopeless Situation.
Assisted dying, in which the person wishing to end their own life seeks the support of a professional organization, is a rather different case. The loved-ones of those who elect to depart this life in such a way are generally involved in the process, understand the motivation, and are able to say goodbye. Yet even this variant of suicide is ultimately motivated by a reality that is not freely Chosen.
It is time to end the social taboo that makes suicide something that must be hushed up or that can only be talked about behind closed doors. After all, not every tragedy can be prevented, and when it strikes, it is important that survivors receive the sympathy and understanding they Need.
TRAUMA AND SOCIETY
The scientific study of trauma became extremely topical at the time of the two world wars.
“Trauma” as a concept, however, emerged in the 1970s when the long-term consequences of the atrocities witnessed by Vietnam veterans became a subject of Research.
Losing someone to suicide is always traumatic. The response of the immediate circle, both to the suicide itself and to its causes and consequences, is a crucial factor in the healing process.
For most of history, those immediately affected have been left to deal with the situation single-handedly. They were expected to heal themselves – perhaps with some rudimentary professional support.
Only later was the absence of support in the immediate aftermath identified as a second trauma that had the effect of compounding the first. Whether and how the healing process is fostered and supported by the survivors' wider circle and society at large is now known to be crucial.
There is thus a real need for more inclusive structures that reach out to survivors and accompany them on their journey. These might include low-level offers of help from voluntary organizations such as family counseling services, home carers, and individuals. Intervention at the height of the crisis will not be sufficient in and of itself. People in a state of shock are scarcely in a position to accept help. The help provided should therefore be adapted to the survivors’ specific – and constantly changing – needs in dialogue with the family.
All too often, suicide survivors have to rely on themselves and on their own limited resources and those of their own private circle. All too often, the trauma itself, the feeling of being overwhelmed by it, and the full extent of the consequences go unrecognized.
Providing suicide survivors with more wide-ranging support services, including care and counseling is a question of political, social, and personal responsibility.
You might at some point feel unable to cope alone. If so, you should seek professional help. The first person to contact might be your family doctor or the local pastor. Talk to them about what happened, about your grief, and about your fears for the future.
Notruf Kinder und Jugendliche
(hotline for children and young People)
0848 35 45 55
Elternnotruf (hotline for parents)
061 261 15 15
Ärztliche Notrufzentrale Notfallpsychiater
(emergency psychiatric Services)
061 325 51 00
Notfall für Erwachsene, Jugendliche
(emergency psychiatric services for children and adults)
061 325 81 81
UPK Basel Akutambulanz
Offene Sprechstunden für Erwachsene
(walk-in psychiatric clinic for adults)
Mon to Fri 8 a.m.–4 p.m.
061 553 56 56
Psychiatrie Baselland, Liestal
Notfall für Erwachsene
(emergency psychiatric services for adults)
061 325 82 00
Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie Basel
(psychiatric clinic for children and young People)
061 553 55 55
Psychiatrie Baselland, Liestal
Notfall für Kinder und Jugendliche(emergency psychiatric services for children and young People)
061 689 90 90
Zentrum Selbsthilfe Basel
(centre for self-help Groups)