Monday, July 22, 2013

The Forgotten Survivors: Family Members of People who Attempt Suicide

Re-posted here with permission from the American Association of Suicidology

Guest Blog: Juliet Carr
Founder of and author of Attempted Suicide: The Essential Guidebook for Loved Ones to be published. She lives in Montrose, Colorado with her husband, 3 children and many rescue and adopted animals.

What would you do if faced with a family member’s or friend’s nonfatal suicide behavior? Where would you search for help? How would you deal with the isolation, stress, anger, blame and guilt while also worrying and working to keep that person alive?
Is this subject even important? And if it is, why hasn’t the field of Suicidology been talking about it?
Juliet pictured here with her children in Montrose, CO
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2010, there were 38,364 reported suicide deaths and there are an estimated 8-25 attempted suicides for every suicide death. A suicide attempt is defined as “the act of intentionally ending one’s life that does not result in death”. In other words, the person who tried to end their life is still alive. If we use the number six as the number of people dramatically affected by a suicide, we can estimate that somewhere between 1,841,472 and 5,754,600 are affected annually in the United States by a suicide attempt of a loved one, including the attempter.

Estimated Suicide Completions 2010
38,364 reported suicide deaths
230,184 people affected in the US annually
4.45 million Americans are bereaved by suicide

Estimated Suicide Attempts 2010
Between 1,841,472 & 5,754,600 are affected annually in the US by a suicide attempt (including the attempter
30 million Americans have survived a loved ones suicide attempt

So many people are affected by suicidal behavior, and yet, we know very little about their experiences and needs. In fact, family members of people who attempt suicide are in many ways the forgotten survivors in our field.

I know about this, because I am one of those forgotten survivors. My father worked through 16 years of therapy and 14 ECT treatments before his first suicide attempt, which was an overdose. Eight months later he shot himself in the head and lived through that suicide attempt as well. My family and I searched, begged and pleaded for help from professional organizations, support groups and coalitions to find that while there are books, websites, studies, chat rooms and organizations dedicated to people bereaved by a suicide loss there was absolutely nothing for someone who had a loved one attempt suicide.

We are sent home from emergency rooms, mental health institutions, and state mental hospitals with no discharge papers, no instructions, no safety plans and no support. We are often blamed for the suicide attempt by professionals and friends but then sent home with my father by those same professionals with the charge of keeping our loved one alive. The strange thing about this is that most of us haven’t even taken a college psychology course let alone have the strength, support system and knowledge to keep a suicidal person alive, but that is what the profession asks of us and society demands.  Because of this experience I began my own healing process and then became motivated to help other families who experience this same tragedy.

I have spent the last 5 years researching, interviewing people, and creating resources for loved ones affected by a suicide attempt. To date I have interviewed 33 people worldwide who have had a loved one attempt suicide, or have attempted suicide themselves. The people I interviewed were between the ages of 20 and 70, were male and female, and had daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, fathers, husbands, wives, mothers, and friends attempt suicide or had also attempted suicide themselves. The interviews have been conducted in person, over the phone, or via email questionnaire. Everyone interviewed who had a loved one attempt suicide searched in vain for resources, support, and answers to their questions only to find nothing helpful or specific to the subject of a suicide attempt, not a suicide completion. For many reasons, most of my research participants wanted their coping process to remain anonymous and possibly work through their grief at their own pace, not in a support group or chat room setting. 

Some of the common questions from loved ones were:
·         What do I say to someone who has attempted suicide? How can I help them?
·         What do I tell my children, my boss, and my friends?
·         How do I support everyone who is affected while keeping myself as healthy as possible?
·         Will I ever feel better and if so, how long will it take?
·         Is what I am going through common or normal?

Common experiences after a suicide attempt included:
·         Isolation
·         discrimination from professionals
·         feelings of disbelief, anger,
·         guilt
·         fear
·         somatic problems: headaches, intestinal problems, feelings of being kicked in the gut,
·         memory loss
·         lack of sleep
·         PTSD and other anxiety problems
·         depression
·         financial repercussions
·         gallows humor
·         suicidal thoughts and actions of their own after the attempt
·         a need to work through their grief.

I found it difficult to find loved ones who were willing to be interviewed. It seems asking a person to return to that time in their life has a very strong effect on people who love someone who has attempted suicide, even years after the attempt.
Additional challenges loved ones faced after a suicide attempt included:
·         legalities from states where suicide and attempting suicide are illegal
·         questions of when to report a suicide threat as it was very common for long periods of time for the person who attempted to threaten but not attempt;
·         blame from professionals
·         72 hour hold laws for someone threatening suicide
·         Complications with health insurance; inability or difficulty in getting health and life insurance after an attempt;
·         How to face the person who attempted
·         How to deal with means restriction after the attempt (One mom described this as feeling like a prisoner in her own home. She chose to lock all means of self-harm in her bedroom away from her daughter after two suicide attempts. So when she needed a knife for cooking she would have to unlock her bed room to retrieve a cooking knife, when she needed scissors she had to unlock her room door to get scissors. In addition, she was surrounded by all means of self-harm in her bedroom, which prior to this event she regarded as her private safe haven);
·         emotional blackmail;
·         threats of future suicide attempts;
·         working to rebuild trust, boundaries and lives;
·         financial problems because of the cost of recovery and/or the inability to be as productive or present at work.

People who had a loved one attempt suicide started to feel like themselves two to five years after the most recent attempt. This is important information because it provides an honest expectation and hope that their lives can return to good.
From these research findings, I developed a website that is designed to help loved ones of people who attempt suicide: On this website people can learn:
·         What to say, What not to say
·         What to expect in the first 72 hours, first month and first 6 months for suicide attempters and for loved ones,
·         What you can do to care for yourself,
·         What you can do to help the attempter,
·         Information for professionals,
·         Material for friends of loved ones,
·         A downloadable blank safety plan,
·         A downloadable blank daily goals sheet and tools for wellness
·         Statistics, links to suicide prevention organizations,
·         A blog
·         A storefront.

Family members who are caring for a person who has attempted suicide are usually working to keep someone alive who is working to die.  This is arduous work they have been forced into while being unprepared, uneducated, and until now, unsupported. To answer the above question; I know this work is important because people who have a loved one attempt suicide experience their own suicidal thoughts and their own challenges. I believe the reason the field of Suicidology has not talked about this subject is because of stigma, fear, and difficulty in finding people willing to be interviewed and honest about their personal experience with attempted suicide. While this work has been personally challenging it has allowed me a way to find commonalities in our experiences, set personal expectations of my own healing process, allowed a gap to be filled in the human race that is desperately needed and given me the ability to teach myself, children and friends warning signs for mental illness and tools to help keep us all well when we are faltering.
For more information:


  1. is there any thing we can do for the family members? like the way of counsling them?

  2. I'm finding it hard to find any help/info for myself after my dad attempted suicide :( does anyine know of any chat rooms or online support?

    1. my dad too 4 days ago. i don't know what to do

  3. megan, my dad too 4 days ago. i don't know what to do

  4. megan, my dad too 4 days ago. i don't know what to do

  5. I was not happy until i met Dr. Esu through his email: because my husband has left me and never had the intention of coming back home. But just within 48 hours that i contacted Dr. Esu my marriage changed to the positive side, At first my husband came back home and since then my marriage has been more peaceful and romantic than ever before... It could be of help to you as well .

  6. I am an attempt survivor , I live with the guilt my 3 beautiful daughters found me and I know the impact it had on them ...! Be firm but kind, although we get mad and say we don't want people around isolation makes it worse , make them shower daily and try to spare a 5 minute walk away from traffic and white noise it brings you back to basics ..., my poor daughters were to scared to go to uni or anything if I could change what I did that day I would but please know there is a brighter future ...!