Young People’s Reactions to Suicide Loss

June 27, 2014

News Type:  Weekly Spark, Weekly Spark Research

The results of a pilot study revealed that young people who were between the ages of 16 and 24 when they experienced a friend’s suicide “became more isolated, reduced their circle of close friends, and generally became more circumspect in relationships.” They also engaged in “risky coping behaviors” including alcohol and drug use and high-risk sexual activity. The authors suggest there is a need for “increased awareness that friends of young people who die by suicide may have significant health and well-being challenges associated with bereavement.”

Analysis of in-depth interviews with ten young people (average age 24) identified four themes in their reactions to a friend’s suicide. The first was “meaning making” – the attempt to understand why a friend died. The death of a close friend raised questions about why he or she had not come to the study participant for help, which in turn raised issues about friendship.

The second theme was guilt about not having been more supportive of the friend who died, or not recognizing that the friend was considering suicide. Friends also often felt guilty for openly displaying feelings about the loss, and even for feeing distress at all compared to the family of the young person who died. The authors speculated that young people who feel that they do not have the right to feel grief may not seek support for their feelings and instead turn to risky coping mechanisms, which was the third theme identified.

These risky coping behaviors included drug and alcohol use and high-risk sexual behavior. The authors point out that although these behaviors are not unusual during adolescence, “for the young person who had experienced the suicide of a friend, these behaviors appeared to become more extreme and potentially harder to control even by their own standards” and sometimes continued for years, with long-term implications for the individuals’ physical and mental health.

The fourth theme was an impact on relationships between the young people and their “friends and others who did not understand or know how to respond” to them. The suicide loss also had an impact upon their ability to trust in and form new friendships.

The authors caution that the sample of young Australians may not be typical of suicide survivors as these 8 women and 2 men “collectively experienced a total of 24 suicide deaths comprising 22 friends and 2 family members” and “a total of 7 other deaths, 5 of whom were friends plus a sibling in motor vehicle accidents, and one other friend who died of natural causes.”

This summary is based on: Bartik, W., Maple, M., Edwards, H., and Kiernan, M. (2013). Adolescent survivors after suicide: Australian young people’s bereavement narratives. Crisis 34(3): 200-210.

SPRC Commentary

For resources on helping young people and others come to terms with the suicide of a friend, classmate, or family member, we recommend consulting the SPRC resource sheets for Parents/Guardians/Families and Survivors of Suicide Loss. SPRC’s Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens can help young people who may be at risk for suicide or who have friends at risk.