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Tailored approach required for adolescents impacted by suicide

Photo: Karl Andriessen
While awareness of suicide and its rippling effect on the community is increasing, much of the research into the psychological impact of those exposed to death by suicide has been focused on adults.

Which is why top academic and suicide ‘postvention’ expert, Karl Andriessen has focused his PhD project at the University of New South Wales, on investigating the grief, mental health and help-seeking experiences of adolescents who have lost a loved one through suicide.

The study, supported by the Anika Foundation for Adolescent Depression and Suicide, identifies the adolescents’ experiences, which may be specific for this age group, to determine whether they require specific attention from caregivers or health professionals.

"It is well-known that exposure to suicide and bereavement after suicide is a risk factor for adverse outcomes related to health, mental health and social functioning," says Mr Andriessen.
“We started this research project because most of the research has been focused on the adult population, not on the younger age groups.

“Hence, little is known about their grief and mental experiences, and their needs for support.

“The study aims to redress that gap in our knowledge.”

The project involved semi-structured telephone interviews with 39 adolescents bereaved by suicide and/or another cause of death.

During the interview participants talked about their relationship with the person they had lost, feelings and needs at time of death, support sought or received, changes in their lives since the loss, what helped or what hindered coping with the loss, help-seeking over the years, and meaning of the loss.

Mr Andriessen says there have been a number of important findings related to the impact of the death, the grief experience, personal growth, and help-seeking, specific to young people. 

“Adolescents may experience a lasting impact of the death, including feelings of sadness, missing, and anger.

“In addition to these painful and negative feelings, the study found evidence of positive feelings such as relief and gratitude.

“The grief feelings occur irrespective of the cause of death. The psychological closeness of the relationship with the deceased appears to be crucial regarding the experienced impact of the death.”
Significantly, Mr Andriessen’s findings showed that young people were less likely to discuss their feelings with others, preferring to self-rely or offer support to others.

They’re also less likely to consider professional support.

“Adolescents experience a wide variety of activities as helpful for their grief experience, including contact with friends or family, doing something, or finding distractions.

“They appear to have limited knowledge of professional help or perceive it as not available.”

And those who do have experiences with professionals have mixed experiences varying from negative to positive.

“Most referrals were initiated by parents, rather than by friends. For adolescents, it is important that it ‘clicked’ with the clinician.

“Early negative experiences result in a quick dropout, often followed by a time lag before willing to engage again.”

Although young people are comfortable with technology and the internet, the study shows that adolescents find it difficult to locate online information and support resources regarding bereavement and suicide bereavement.

“Support through school was mostly experienced as not available, though a few received support,” says Mr Andriessen.

“In general, adolescents seem unsure about the expertise and level of confidentiality of school-based support.”

For many young people, the loss of a loved one through suicide is their first experience with death, so the impact can be broad and far-reaching.

“Experiencing the death of a close family member or a friend often results in personal growth and increased maturity.

“They learned important ‘life-lessons’ relating to an increased awareness of the fragility of life, and a stronger appreciation of life and relationships.

“Participants had become much more aware of the priorities or goals in their lives. Despite the devastating effects that a suicide death may have, the study found the experience can be a catalyst for positive mental health.”

While the scope of the study didn’t extend to the evaluation of current services, it did show that age-appropriate treatment would have an impact on the mental health of young people effected by suicide.

“Young people may seem reluctant to talk about their experiences. Hence, a variety of therapeutic approaches, and age-appropriate therapeutic skills are essential.”

While this study is shedding some light on how clinicians can better tailor their treatment plans to adolescents, Mr Andriessen further research is needed.

“Further research is needed regarding the bereaved adolescents’ perception of services, their accessibility and offers.

“Also, research into the effectiveness of support, including non-psychotherapeutic interventions is needed.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.