According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention of Suicide (AFSP), almost 43,000 Americans die by suicide each year. And, for every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts. Further, for every person lost to suicide, there is a tragic ripple effect. Everyone who knew the person is deeply affected: wife, husband, children, parents, extended relations, friends, employers, and co-workers. Many of these people report that they never felt the same following a suicide loss. In fact, in suicide survivor treatment, we talk about life before the suicide and life ever after, a permanent demarcation.
One common thought after a suicide is “Why?”—followed closely by the common fear: “Was this my fault in some way? Was there more I could have done?” It’s important for survivors to recognize their emotions are a normal response to the event. Anger, guilt, and feelings of abandonment abound. People may feel dazed and disorganized. Irrational fears and feelings of vulnerability are common. Many fear they will never be focused and competent, much less happy, again.
Life can be both awe-inspiring and cruel at times, but one thing we cannot argue is that time keeps moving forward. We keep moving forward. We meet new people and new events unfold. Gradually, we are pulled to rejoin life. And, we are essentially hard-wired to heal. However, trauma can cement people to the past. So, someone who has been traumatized may needs assistance to activate natural self-healing and return to optimal emotional wellbeing.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
The loss of a person to suicide must be treated as a serious trauma, one further complicated by a wrenching broken attachment. Just as in with other types of trauma, some individuals will experience a post-traumatic stress reaction that may interfere with normal functioning and can last an extended period of time.
Approaches to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment are presently undergoing many changes. For instance, we have a large number of veterans returning home from the battlefield bearing emotional as well as physical scars. This has prompted researchers and practitioners to look further afield, beyond conventional treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and the use of medication. For example, a recent article in the September 17, 2016 edition of the New York Times covered a variety of alternative treatments, including yoga, dolphin swims, and sweat lodge vision quests. Lt. Col. Gary Wynn, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Uniformed Services University of the HealthSciences, the military’s medical school, was quoted in the article, saying,
“Interest has just exploded…I work with the V.A. and the military. There is no one who thinks this is just silly alternative medicine stuff anymore.”
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist who helped get PTSD recognized, has been using therapies that move the energy in our bodies as an adjunct to traditional therapies for years. In 2007, he published an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on a clinical trial of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a trauma treatment technique that has been growing in popularity. It was found to be highly effective with statistically significant results.
Distraction of the brain is a significant part of these new therapies. In relaxing the body and moving energy, we distract the brain from its normal defensive posture (anxiety and fear) and give it a moment to re-evaluate perceived threats—“Look again, is the threat actually still here?” The ultimate goal is that individuals re-evaluate old fears and traumas in order to reduce their importance and impact on the present day. For instance, in EMDR, I tell my clients: “The one good thing about this past is that it’s not here now.” When that finally “clicks-in” energetically, there is a release and the person feels instantly more calm, and is able to replace old reactions to trauma with new, more constructive thoughts, such as:
“The past trauma is not here now. And since it’s not here, I don’t need to react to it right now. If the traumatic situation occurs again, I can react to that. But I’m not going to waste energy reacting to things that are not here.”
While formal treatment is an essential component for those recovering from serious traumas, such as the suicide of a loved one, there are a number of things an individual can do to support his own healing process if he doesn’t have the financial resources to pay for it:
- Exercise is essential, especially aerobic exercise. I encourage people to not set too high a bar (which can lead to quitting). Instead, find an activity that works with your life long-term. Yoga is excellent.
- A healthy diet is important. In particular, eat vegetables and high protein foods that promote steady blood sugar levels, and avoid alcohol. Consider B-complex and Omega-3 supplements.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses a technique called Thought Stopping. Stop negative thoughts before they start. You can even turn it into a bit of a game, to immediately remove a negative thought that pops into your mind before it has a chance to take hold. The key is to jump on the negative thought quickly before a spiral down begins. Replace it with the next thought you can accept that is slightly more self-supportive.
- Mindfulness (i.e., focus on the present moment) is a hot topic right now, and is, indeed, a useful approach. However, attaining this focus can be a serious challenge for badly traumatized people, so it may be easier to start with some of the other approaches and re-visit mindfulness as healing progresses.
- All types of bodywork can be helpful, from massage to acupuncture. Moving energy is key.
- Guided audio programs that support relaxation, promote self-confidence, and the like can be quite useful. There are a number of good free programs available on YouTube. Like all treatments, the regularity of repetition is important for success.
The ultimate goal of PTSD treatment is to help individuals develop self-regulation techniques so that they are no longer burdened by their experience with trauma. Suicide survivors are at high risk for suicide themselves. With a combination of focused treatment and ongoing self-care, individuals can gain the resilience needed to get past the trauma and move forward with their lives.