Encouraging someone battling depression to seek professional help is indeed the appropriate – and necessary – thing to do. However, according to Dr. Stacey Cahn, a staff psychologist in Counseling & Psychological Services and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, even with mental health treatment, many people still die by suicide. And that can be devastating for loved ones in many ways.

“Yes, reaching out to a loved one who’s suicidal can save a life, but, at the same time, we have to be careful that we’re not inadvertently sending the message to the millions who have lost a loved one to suicide that there is something they could have said or done to save them,” Cahn said.

Sometimes there is not.

“I hope we are not giving the message that there is something you could have done if only you made a better effort. You could reach out, you could say everything right, and someone could still die by suicide. The truth is we do not have full control over others’ behavior,” she said.

“While suicide prevention should be a public health priority, it’s important we remember the millions of grieved, and often traumatized, loved ones suicide leaves behind,” Cahn said.

She said there are many things the loved ones of those who commit suicide – and those who care for those loved ones – should consider

Losing someone to suicide is uniquely painful

o They may feel preoccupied with the “why” of suicide. They may feel complicated, mixed emotions, including anger, grief, confusion and shame. They may be blamed by others grieving the same loss, searching for a tidy answer to “why.”

o Media accounts of “How to help someone at risk of suicide” may exacerbate feelings of anger and guilt or may bring back memories of their loss. 

o Those who lost a child to suicide may struggle with how to respond to questions from friends, such as, “How did he die?” or even seemingly benign questions from well-meaning strangers, e.g., “How many kids do you have?”

o “What do I tell the children?” can be an even more difficult question when a spouse dies by suicide and there are children survivors.

o Survivors may feel shunned by friends and family who “don’t know what to say.”

Stigma around suicide exacerbates the problem

o Society has seen greater willingness to acknowledge deaths from drugs/addition (i.e., indicating this as cause of death in obituaries), yet few obituaries acknowledge death from suicide or mental illness. This serves to perpetuate stigma and shame. We need to get past the “shame and blame” around suicide.

“Suicide loss recovery”

o Suicide loss recovery refers to loved ones recovering from a loved one’s death by suicide. It is not “getting over it” or “closure.” It’s getting back to perhaps a new normal. It’s not a passive “time heals all wounds.” It’s an active process of taking care of yourself, learning to live your life again. Self-help helps. Survivors may have grieved other deaths or losses, but grieving a suicide can feel very different, given that it’s often unexpected and, by definition, intentional.

Cahn has been widely published in mass media and social media, including peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and a book. Her research has ranged from depression among heart failure patients to treatment of binge eating disorders.

She earned her Ph.D. and master’s in clinical psychology from Rutgers University and her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is a licensed psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She is a member of Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Rowan can make her available via its broadcast studio.