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Scientists Begin Studying Aftereffects Of Suicide on Families and Survivors

By Erica Goode

The New York Times -- More than 29,000 Americans kill themselves every year. Each death forcibly derails the lives of parents and children, partners and siblings, hurtling them into unfamiliar and sometimes perilous territory. But the study of suicide has for the most part been devoted to those who choose to end their lives, not to the survivors, those left behind. Only recently have researchers begun to investigate, in a systematic fashion, the effects of a death from suicide on family members.

“Survivors were always seen as a source of information about suicides, but few studies looked into the problems that survivors were having,” said Dr. Herbert Hendin, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which joined with the National Institute of Mental Health in May in convening experts to assess the state of research on suicide survivors, the first meeting of its kind. The report from the conference was released in late September.

Studies suggest that the psychological legacy of a suicide may differ from that of other deaths.

“Suicide flies in the face of people’s beliefs abut how life is and how it operates,” said Dr. John Jordan, the author of a 2001 review of research on suicide survivors and the director of the Family Loss Project, a group based near Boston that conducts research and offers treatment to the bereaved.

“Survivors spend a great deal of time trying to figure things out,” Jordan said. “What was the person’s frame of mind? How could they have done this? Who is responsible for it? What does it mean?”

Some people pass through a normal grief process and heal quickly, but studies suggest that suicide survivors often experience more guilt, rejection, shame, and isolation than those who grieve other deaths. If they have spent years dealing with a relative bent on an escalating course of self-destruction, they may also feel relief.

Some studies have found that family members bereaved by suicide feel worse about themselves and are viewed more negatively by others. In a 1993 study, wives who had lost their husbands to suicide were seen as more psychologically disturbed, less likable and more blameworthy than wives whose husbands had died from heart attacks or in accidents.

Suicide survivors themselves have an elevated risk of suicide, and according to some studies are more vulnerable to depression, a risk factor for suicide. In a 1996 study, Dr. David A. Brent, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, and his colleagues found higher levels of depression in the siblings of adolescent suicide victims six months after the death, and in the mothers of the victims one year afterward, compared with a control group. At three years, the siblings were no more depressed than a control group, but the mothers were still having difficulty.