The Trauma of Suicide

You wake up in the hospital, restrained, with tubes sticking out of your body.  The staff is unfriendly and you are confused about how you ended up here.  You have attempted to end your life.  Once you realize where you are and why, then what happens?  You either are terrified of what you just tried to do, or you are frustrated that you are still here.  You are then sent to a locked psychiatric facility for further evaluation.  You feel hopeless, helpless, worthless and alone.

In the mental health community there’s a lot of focus on recognizing and minimizing risk of attempted suicide.  But what happens when someone has already attempted suicide?  How do the family members and the survivor cope?  Mental health providers need to treat not only the risk, but also the trauma to both the client and the family members associated with an attempt.   

Suicide attempts and the events that follow an attempt are traumatizing.  Often, it’s some kind of trauma that led to the attempt, and that trauma is compounded by the attempt itself.  Both emotional and physical trauma follow an attempt.  Suicide is terrifying and it’s one of the darkest secrets that people keep – whether it’s thoughts of suicide, or the experience of a friend or family member who has committed suicide or tried to.  People think that being silent will prevent it, but that’s not the case.  One of the best things you can do IS to deal with it head on, in a safe and non-judgmental place.

Trauma is stored in the emotional center of the brain.  Is it held in the body and body memories can be triggered by thoughts or reminders of the experience.  The physical damage done to the body is also traumatic and can stay with you even after you *think* you’ve made it through the darkness.  Treatment approaches have been developed to safely and effectively deal with trauma, such as EMDR, somatic (body awareness) therapy, trauma talk therapy, drama therapy or a number of other approaches.  It’s important to work with someone who is experienced in the treatment of trauma.

Some Common Experiences of Suicide Survivors

  • Feeling deep grief

  • Feeling terrified of what just happened, or being angry that you did not succeed

  • Being surrounded by people that don’t understand, or judge you

  • Having difficulty explaining what happened to family members

  • Feeling a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts, such as shock, anger, shame, guilt, despair, loneliness, depression, abandonment, grief, confusion, and disorientation

  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as chills, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, body and head aches

  • Experiencing difficulty performing day-to-day activities, sleeping and eating

  • Feeling stigmatized by others

  • Feeling that suicide is unspeakable and therefore feeling isolated in your pain

  • Feeling that the hospital staff is resentful and disgusted by you (“GOMER” = Get Out of My Emergency Room)

You can’t deal with this alone – pushing it down doesn’t make it go away.  Unfortunately there aren’t many support groups for suicide survivors, and some therapists are nervous about working with someone who is at risk.  There are therapists who specialize in trauma and deep emotional pain – find one.  Also find a good psychiatrist.  Your therapist can provide referrals for you.  Medication can help you get through the darkest time as you work on the emotions that led you here.

Some Common Experiences of Family Members

  • Feeling confused, abandoned, indignant and angry
  • Feeling guilty, and wondering what they could have done (or not done) differently to prevent this
  • Feeling guilty about being angry at the person
  • Wanting to ignore it and hope it goes away
  • Feeling stigmatized by others and themselves
  • Feeling ashamed and scared
  • Grieving 
  • Feeling like they failed the person

I recommend therapy for family members of suicide survivors as well.  There are also some great support groups for family members of people who suffer from mental illness.  The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) has programs all over the country.  There are peer led support groups and a 12-week program call Family to Family that can help you understand what your loved one is going through and cope with your emotions.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide or know someone who is, please reach out for help:  

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.