Family members bereaved by suicide suffer health issues

Family members bereaved by suicide have elevated levels of stress, depression, and anxiety and are at increased risk of poorer physical health, according to new research.

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Financial difficulties in the aftermath of suicide often prevent them accessing formal support.

The research conducted by the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF) and the School of Public Health, University College Cork (UCC), had two separate strands: A systematic review of 24 studies worldwide and in-depth interviews with 18 family members bereaved by suicide in Ireland.

Ella Arensman, chief scientist at the NSRF, said the 18 family members had previously been interviewed three months after bereavement as part of a separate project.

I was struck by the number of bereaved women at the time complaining about cardiovascular issues and that had never been followed up before,” said Prof Arensman. “When our researcher, Ailbhe Spillane, went back and interviewed them after two years for this study, we were surprised to find the physical health issues remained, and in some cases were more chronic.

Ms Spillane’s research found that one in four participants had at least mild levels of stress and nearly one in five had elevated levels of anxiety two years on.

They described nightmares and visions, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts of their own, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prof Arensman said that 18% displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Physical health problems include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, type 1 diabetes, and diverticulitis.

The research found financial difficulties in the aftermath of the suicide “were unfortunately common” and prevented many from accessing formal support services.

Participants spoke about having to halt their counselling sessions due to a lack of money to pay for the service. Reasons for financial difficulties include inheriting the debts of the deceased or having to give up or take a break from work due to grieving difficulties.

Ms Spillane said: “Since we now know the main physical and mental health problems experienced after suicide bereavement, we need to prioritise high-quality support services, without restricting such services because of financial constraints.

Prof Arensman said “an arm around the shoulder is good”, but people also need professional expertise”.

She said people are less likely to have social supports available to them two years on as there is often an expectation that people would have “moved on”.

“If people don’t have ongoing independent support, it remains a very painful and stressful situation,” she said.

The studies are published online at BMC Public Health and BMJ Open.

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