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Hope and Healing for Suicide Witness Survivors

Posted on
February 15, 2023

In honor of September’s Suicide Prevention Month, Hurdle’s Vice President of Clinical Affairs Krystle Herbert, LMFT, PsyD, opens up about her experience as a witness survivor and shares recommendations to move the conversation from suicide to suicide prevention.

Afew years ago, my phone rang early on a cold dark morning. It was a call I will never forget. It was my best friend. For the first few moments, all I could hear were her sobs. Then, these words: “He’s gone. He committed suicide.”

“He” was another close friend of ours. He was 25-years-young. He had a lively spirit, a beautiful personality, and a kind disposition. He had his ups and downs but never appeared to show warning signs of suicide or suicidal ideation. It was a surreal moment. Hearing the brokenness in my friend’s voice catapulted me into shock. I was speechless. My mind raced. My heart broke for our friend’s family. Pain coursed through my body, a physical manifestation of the helplessness I felt in that moment to make things better. “How could this happen?” I thought. He had such a bright future ahead of him.

Knowing how to respond in these situations, and more so, how to compassionately address loved ones who you worry may be contemplating suicide or exhibiting suicidal behaviors has required my own professional and soulful inquiry into this rising public health concern. As a behavioral health executive and a licensed provider with years of direct clinical care experience, I have been on the receiving end of these phone calls both as a mental health professional, and as a friend, family member, and loved one of someone who has taken their own life. I know I am not alone in this experience. Stories of people receiving these types of phone calls have unfortunately become widespread. According to the 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals ages 10–34. In short, suicide is a serious public health concern and at an all-time high.

“It is essential to address someone you care about who you think is having suicidal thoughts.”

-Krystle Herbert, LMFT, PsyD

Death is a topic too strenuous for many to think about or discuss. It is never easy losing someone no matter how they transition from their physical presence on this earth, yet the repercussions of suicide are far-reaching. Those left behind when their loved one has committed suicide, sometimes referred to as “suicide survivors,” frequently experience unique difficulties as they attempt to grieve the loss. The death often feels like an unsolvable mystery, shrouded in unanswered questions that can create feelings of guilt and self-doubt, often leading to a sense of responsibility for the loss. Facing the stigma associated with suicide can make sharing thoughts and feelings with others difficult, resulting in limited sources of support. Thus, witness survivors (people who witnessed the death, discovered the body, or were exposed to graphic details regarding the death) are often left with lasting traumatic memories, with little direction on how to reconcile their own emotions of grief and loss, and to find ways to heal. As a result survivors of suicide are at higher risk for mental health conditions, including their own suicidal ideation or behavior.

Healing from these traumatic moments of loss often requires intentional self-compassion.

For witness survivors, the following actions can be a part of your path to healing:

  1. Exercise self-care and don’t blame yourself. You are not responsible.
  2. Allow yourself to feel your authentic emotions, it is ok to grieve. It is a critical part of the healing process.
  3. Seek professional support from a therapist if you need assistance with coping strategies.
  4. You are not alone. Join a support group for survivors experiencing bereavement due to suicide.

It is vital to know the actions you can take if you are concerned that someone you know may be suicidal:

  1. Suicide can be difficult to discuss. However, it is essential to address someone you care about who you think is having suicidal thoughts. Research shows that asking someone, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” will not increase suicidal thoughts. Instead, being straightforward with inquiring can be the best way to identify someone who is at risk.
  2. Learn about and know the risk factors, warning signs, and protective factors of suicide.
  3. Take any concerns you have about someone who displays suicidal thoughts seriously. Be honest with your fears as you offer support by letting the person know you are there for them. Quickly seek help and share resources in a non-judgmental and compassionate manner.

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