Causes of PTSD: Witnessing a suicide
The traumas that cause post-traumatic stress disorder take many forms. Not all of them are obvious to others, or even to you!
A poignant example of this is when you witness someone ending their life. Whether that person was known to you or not.
There’s increasing awareness about mental health and suicide rates. What is not so widely discussed, is the mental health issues that can arise from seeing someone kill themselves, discovering a body or experiencing someone else’s suicide attempt.
Every year, around 700,000 people end their life worldwide. In 2019 in England, Wales and Scotland that figure was over 6,500 people. When you see figures like that, you get a sense of how many people could have PTSD from witnessing the act. Firm data on this does not appear to be collected.
How many suffer in silence, concerned not to appear to ‘take attention away’ from the deceased?
The ones who are left behind
Though suicide is a deeply personal choice, there are many occasions when it creates witnesses.
For example, a study into ‘railways deaths’ concluded it’s statistically likely that every train driver will see at least one suicide at some point in their career.
Police and paramedics are frequently the first on the scene for all deaths, part of the continuous trauma they experience.
Another sobering statistic is that well over 50% of suicides occur in the individual’s own home. Making it highly likely that a member of their own family will find them, and be exposed to their chosen method of dying.
What are the effects of witnessing suicide?
Seeing death up close creates a strong imprint on your psyche, and the smells, sounds and sights associated with this trauma can be prolific. Leaving you with multiple PTSD triggers.
Another common PTSD symptom resulting from seeing a suicide is an overpowering sense of guilt. You can be left with a multitude of unanswerable questions, especially could you have saved them.
Even if the person was a stranger to you, the pain and despair that brought about this act can ‘haunt’ you. When it’s a loved one, the ‘Why did they do that?’ and ‘How could I have stopped them?’ questions are even more profoundly troubling.
Suicide can shatter your equilibrium and the faith you have in relationships and society. Flashbacks and nightmares are common, as well as hypervigilance as you may start to watch for signs of despair in people you care about, or in yourself.
You can experience tremendous anger that this person ‘involved you’, which becomes mingled with your guilt.
When a loved one is involved, suicide loss survival becomes even more complex if you witness the act or its aftermath. This is why depression, and even suicidal thoughts, are sadly common in those close to the person who died.
PTSD help after witnessing suicide
It’s important to be clear that the lasting effects on your mental health described in this article can apply when you witness a failed suicide attempt, as well as when the outcome was death.
As with all forms of PTSD, it’s vital to seek help in finding a sustainable way to manage the trauma and your responses. For many witnesses to suicide, this involves counselling or professionally run grief support groups alongside treatment for your PTSD such as CBT or EMDR.
You must not hesitate to access this help even the suicide involved a stranger. Your PTSD and grief are valid, and you’re as entitled as anyone to get appropriate support.
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It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.