How many of us are there?
By Julie Cerel, Ph.D., University of Kentucky School of Social Work
(Adapted from Seeking Hope: Stories of the Suicide Bereaved, Chellehead Works, 2010)
You’ve likely read somewhere that for everyone that dies by suicide, there are six people left behind. These people are often referred to as “survivors” or people bereaved by the suicide. The term survivor comes from the language of obituaries– “he was survived by his wife and…” If we count only six survivors for every suicide, it would make one in every 64 Americans (1.5%) a survivor of suicide (see http://mypage.iusb.edu/~jmcintos/2007datapgsv2b.pdf). In reality, when a suicide occurs, it’s not just those intimate family members who are affected. Each death by suicide has the potential to have a profound impact on parents, siblings, grandparents, spouses or partners, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends, classmates, co-workers, therapists and countless other people who might never be included in the six. We really don’t know how many survivors exist. Helping people understand that knowing or caring about someone who died by suicide is not an uncommon experience and can make the experience much less lonely.
In the last few years, my research group has conducted yearly phone studies of residents of my state. In these studies, numbers were randomly dialed in order to get the widest representation of residents across our state. We asked, “Do you know anyone who has attempted or died by suicide?” to which 64% of the people agreed they had. We then asked them, “Did they die by suicide?” Forty percent of people stated they knew at least one person who had died by suicide. Individuals also were asked, “Do you consider yourself a survivor of suicide, that is, someone whose life has been personally affected by a suicide?” Over a third of people (34%) agreed with this label. We also did a similar study online with college students and the findings were almost the same. What this tells me is that most people have experience with someone they know attempting or dying by suicide, almost half of people know someone who has died, and up to a third of people feel like a suicide has had an impact on their lives. The people who reported that they were survivors were the most likely to report they were very close with the person who died but the actual relationship type did not seem to matter (for example, child, friend, cousin). Research like this can help people feel less alone knowing that, even though each suicide is different, you are not the only person who has experienced the suicide of someone you care about.
• Based on the 772,398 suicides from 1983 through 2007, it is estimated that the number of survivors of suicides in the U.S. is 4.6 million (1 of every 65 Americans in 2007); the number grew by at least 207,588 in 2007. Based on this estimate, approximately 6 million Americans became survivors of suicide in the last 25 years.
• If there is a suicide every 15.2 minutes, then there are at least 6 new survivors every 15.2 minutes as well.
Prominent people who lost loved ones to suicide
Many prominent people (including two U.S. Presidents) have lost family members to suicide. This list of notable survivors was compiled by Dan Fields for the Grief Support Services program of Samaritans, Inc., based in Boston. Dan has been inspired by the strength and courage of the survivors he knows or whose stories he has heard. The Samaritans website is (http://samaritanshope.org) and the page for the GSS program is (http://samaritanshope.org/index.php/grief-support.html).
Download the list here.