Factors contributing to therapists’ severe distress after the suicide of a patient were investigated.
Therapists for 34 patients who died by suicide completed a semistructured questionnaire about their reactions, wrote case narratives, and participated in a workshop.
Thirteen of the 34 therapists were severely distressed. Four factors were identified as sources of severe distress: failure to hospitalize an imminently suicidal patient who then died, a treatment decision the therapist felt contributed to the suicide, negative reactions from the therapist’s institution, and fear of a lawsuit by the patient’s relatives. Although one emotion was sometimes dominant in the therapist’s response to the suicide, severely distressed therapists, compared to others, reported a significantly larger number of intense emotional states.
Over one-third of therapists who experienced a patient’s suicide were found to suffer severe distress, pointing to the need for further study of the long-term effects of patient suicide on professional practice.