How to cope when a colleague dies by suicide
What can we expect after it happens?
When a colleague dies by suicide it is a shock for everyone involved.
It is extremely normal to have an unpleasant stress response including:
- Shock, disbelief and even denial that it has happened
- Feeling surreal, disconnected or like you are ‘going mad’
- Feeling preoccupied, like you can’t stop thinking about it
- Feeling guilty and wondering what you could have done to prevent it
- Having unpleasant intrusive thoughts and images popping into your head
- Disturbed sleep and appetite
- Wanting to talk about it a lot, or not talk about it at all
- Trying to work out ‘why’ it happened
- Wanting to blame someone/ something
- Feeling more emotional, tearful, angry or irritable/ on edge
- Worrying about other colleagues and loved ones
- Keeping busy to avoid thinking about it
- Reaching for things to comfort or numb yourself like alcohol, drugs or food
This initial phase is usually at its worst for a few days to a couple of weeks after the event, and for most people it will gradually ease over approximately 6-8 weeks.
Some people may need to take some time away from work, some may prefer to carry on working, but may still need additional support at work. It is normal to have good days and bad days for quite a while after losing a colleague to suicide.
A few people may experience a very severe initial reaction or a longer-lasting reaction, which requires them to seek help from their GP or another caring professional. This kind of traumatic stress can be treated and helped by professionals. It will get better.
What can my colleagues and I do?
The best things you can do for yourself and your colleagues after losing a colleague to suicide is:
- Stay connected to your loved ones - in person, by phone or text, however you can, as soon as you can, and as often as you need
- Continue your normal day-to-day routines as much as possible, however odd this may feel to begin with
- Try not to avoid fearful situations, keep going gently and slowly and with support
- Keep an eye on any less-helpful coping strategies like alcohol and food - a little excess is normal, but if it becomes a pattern try to speak with someone sooner rather than later
Should we talk about it?
Talk about it if you want to, don’t if you don’t. Forced debriefing can be very unhelpful. Offering safe spaces for people to talk in confidence, individually and as a team, can be helpful but don’t make it mandatory for people to speak. Rumour and conjecture are unhelpful but sharing how you feel and what is going through your mind with your colleagues can be very helpful and normalising.
Where can we get professional help if we need it?
There is a lot of help available but a good place to start is either:
- Speak to your GP if you are suffering with severe symptoms of trauma or grief that are impacting on your day-to-day life
- NHS Practitioner Health has a wealth of resources to support healthcare professionals after losing a colleague to suicide – you can access this support via their website here: www.practitonerhealth.nhs.uk
What if I, or another colleague, are feeling suicidal?
It’s normal to be frightened if you are having suicidal thoughts. Please reach out and tell someone:
- 24/7 Text support line – text NHSPH to 85258
- The Samaritans – Call 116 123
- Make a safety plan at www.stayingsafe.net
Dr Caroline Walker, Doctors’ Health Specialist, Psychiatrist and Therapist
NHS Practitioner Health Clinician and Founder of The Joyful Doctor
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