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Those bereaved through suicide, at risk of doing the same

Absolute suicide risk increases to 1 in 10

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

People bereaved through suicide, are at higher risk of attempting suicide themselves, new data shows.

The research* from University College London (UCL), funded by the Medical Research Council, found that people bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member are 65% more likely to attempt suicide if the deceased died by suicide than if they died by natural causes. This brings the absolute risk up to 1 in 10.

The researchers studied 3,432 UK university staff and students aged 18-40 who had been bereaved, to examine the specific impacts associated with bereavement by suicide. 

The results, published in BMJ Open, also reveal that those bereaved by suicide were also 80% more likely to drop out of education or work. In total, 8% of the people bereaved by suicide had dropped out of an educational course or a job since the death.

"Our results highlight the profound impact that suicide might have on friends and family members," says study author Dr Alexandra Pitman.

“Employers should be aware of the significant impact that suicide bereavement has on people's working lives and make adjustments to help their staff return to work.”

The study also found that people who had been bereaved by suicide tended to perceive more social stigma around the death. When the results were adjusted for perceived social stigma to reflect this, the significant differences in suicide attempts and occupational functioning disappeared. While further research is required, this suggests that addressing the social stigma attached to suicide bereavement might be one way to help to limit its impact on people's lives.

"British people can be very uncomfortable talking about death, and suicide in particular is often perceived as a taboo subject," explains Dr Pitman. "However, avoiding the subject can make a bereaved person feel very isolated and stigmatised, and sometimes even blamed for the death. People bereaved by suicide should not be made to feel in any way responsible, and should be treated with the same compassion as people bereaved by any other cause. Suicide is a complex issue and there is often no simple explanation for why someone chooses to take their own life. Although one often hears people refer to a relationship break-up or a redundancy as the trigger for a suicide, this is far too simplistic and in reality it is often a culmination of different life events rather than one individual ‘cause'."

Previous studies have shown family history of suicide to be a risk factor for suicide attempt, so risk assessments in hospitals, prisons and social care settings are designed to take this into account. However, the new study suggests that a history of suicide among non-blood relatives and friends should also be considered when assessing suicide risk. 


* Pitman A L, et al. Bereavement by suicide as a risk factor for suicide attempt: a cross-sectional national UK-wide study of 3432 young bereaved adults. BMJ Open 2016;6:e009948 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009948

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