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Do support groups work for suicide survivors?

By Julie Cerel, Ph.D., University of Kentucky School of Social Work

Support groups for suicide survivors are among the most widely available type of support for survivors. Many view participation in a support group as an essential part of working through bereavement following a suicide. For example, in their book Touched by Suicide, Myers and Fine’s top two suggestions for coping after suicide loss include: “seek out other survivors” and “find a support group in your community or a chat room on the internet where you can connect to others who are now residents in your strange new land”(Myers & Fine, 2006, pp. 12-13). In Touched by Suicide, Carla Fine describes how connecting with other survivors “assures me, once again, that I am not alone, and gives me the courage and language to reach out to others for support” (Myers & Fine, 2006, p. 180). The websites of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) (www.suicidology.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) (www.afsp.org) host directories of support groups across the United States. There are over 400 survivors support groups listed in these directories with at least one group in each state.

In a study conducted by SPAN USA, 100 group leaders answered questions about their groups (Cerel, Padgett, & Reed, 2009). Results of that survey indicated that most groups are led or co-led by survivors. Most groups have less than ten members at each session and most survivors only attend less than ten groups overall. Sharing of experiences is a universal feature of groups.

Despite their natural appeal, there is little to no research which can help answer the question “do support groups work for suicide survivors?” (Cerel, Padgett, Conwell & Reed 2009). Support groups vary greatly in their leadership (survivor versus mental health professional), membership format (open to only one relationship category like parents versus open to all bereaved individuals), timing/length (weekly, monthly, less often, open-ended or close-ended), and access (open to all comers versus having people screened prior to joining). Some research has shown that some close-ended,  manualized groups, which are similar to more traditional therapy groups, are effective.   Research is needed to determine for whom groups work (men versus women, older versus younger survivors, parents versus siblings versus peers, etc.), when people should join groups after a loss (sooner or later), how long groups should run (closed-ended or open ended).

References

Cerel, J., Padgett, J., & Reed, J. (2009). Support groups for suicide survivors: Results of a survey of group leaders. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. 39(6). 588-598. PMID: 20121322

Cerel, J., Padgett, J, Conwell, Y., & Reed, G. (2009). A Call for research: The need to better understand the impact of support groups for suicide survivors. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 39(3), 269-281. PMID: 19606919

Myers, M. F., & Fine, C. (2006). Touched by suicide: Hope and healing after loss. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

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