The loss of a spouse is never easy, but the loss of a spouse to suicide may be even more devastating, leading to a greater risk of a host of mental and physical problems, Danish researchers suggest.
Surviving partners are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Surviving spouses are also at higher risk for suicide themselves, the study said.
“It’s a really distressing event for people,” said lead researcher Annette Erlangsen, from the Danish Research Institute for Suicide Prevention at the Mental Health Centre in Copenhagen.
“Being bereaved by suicide is stigmatized and it is something people don’t talk about,” Erlangsen said. “Surviving spouses may feel isolated, and other people may be more afraid of addressing it. It’s important to deal with the loss, and part of that is talking to others about it.”
Although the study wasn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship, researchers also found that those who lost a spouse to suicide were more apt to develop physical ailments, including cirrhosis of the liver, sleeping disorders, cancer and herniated discs in the back.
“However, most survivors of suicide manage to maneuver through this phase of grieving without any severe health problems,” Erlangsen said.
Globally, more than 800,000 people die by suicide every year, the study authors said. Each of these people may leave behind approximately 60 relatives and friends affected by the suicide. The researchers said there are support programs for survivors of a loved one’s suicide, but these programs aren’t widely available.
For the study, the researchers used a national register that included nearly 7 million people in Denmark. The data covered from 1980 to 2014. There was information on nearly 5,000 men and 11,000 women whose spouse had died by suicide.
The researchers found that compared to spouses bereaved by other causes of death, male spouses of a partner who died via suicide had a 70 percent higher risk of developing mental health problems.
For women grieving the loss of a spouse by suicide compared to a spouse grieving other types of spousal death, the risk of mental health disorders was twice as high, the study showed.
Spouses grieving a loss by suicide were more likely to seek mental health care, and more likely to undergo psychiatric hospitalizations than the general population.
In addition, spouses were more likely to use more sick leave benefits, disability pension funds and social services than the general population, Erlangsen’s team found.
The report was published online March 22 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Although the study was done in Denmark, the same problems exist in the United States, said Dr. Eric Caine. He’s co-director of the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y.
Along with all the other feelings of grief and sadness survivors may have, they may also feel guilt about not doing something to prevent their spouse’s death, Caine said.
“When someone’s been married to a person who has died by suicide, this is a person that is not only going to need support and attention in the near term but for years to come,” he said.
Caine, who wrote an accompanying journal editorial, believes that after a suicide, survivors need a lot of social support.
“It’s really important that people stand together,” he said. “We know that social connections are powerful protective factors for health and well-being. Social connectedness at a time like this is very important.”
If grieving continues for an extended time, it may be best to get some help, Erlangsen said.
“If grieving becomes chronic, it is important to seek professional help so that one doesn’t end up having chronic health problems,” she said.
For more information on coping after a suicide, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.