Postvention and the Psychiatrists’ Reaction to Patient Suicide

Authors: Dr. Rachel Taylor-East, Dr. Kristina Bettanzana, Dr. Emma Micallef Knoweko, Dr. Alexia Rossi, Dr. Julian Caruana

Aims and Hypothesis: The main purpose of this study was to conduct an in-depth exploration of the psychiatrists’ emotional response to patient suicide, and any interventions or actions taken.

Background: Suicide rates have been increasing steadily world-wide. Studies have consistently shown that a substantial number of psychiatrists have experienced at least one case of patient suicide. This suggests that this phenomenon is not rarely experienced by psychiatrists. Various studies have shown that the stress levels experienced by psychiatrists after their patients’ suicide have had a deleterious impact on their personal and professional lives. Indeed, patient suicide has been described as an occupational hazard for psychiatrists working in direct patient care. Despite this, there is a paucity of research in this area, particularly in the local context. Furthermore, there are no formal guidelines or procedures to support and inform psychiatrists when they experience a patient suicide. 

Methods: Ethics approval was granted (FREC – Social Wellbeing). Ten in-depth interviews with psychiatry specialists were conducted, transcribed independently and analysed using triangulated thematic analysis.

Results: Several themes were extracted from the 10 in-depth interviews including the emotional and cognitive response to patient suicide, and perspectives on the current postvention practice.  

Conclusions: This study highlights patient suicide as a common phenomenon experienced by psychiatrists. The psychiatrists interviewed reported significant emotional distress when experiencing patient suicide, and in coping with the practicalities in current clinical practice. Suggestions for improved postvention practice were made.