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Should I participate in research about suicide prevention or postvention?

By Dr. Paul W.C. Wong, D.Psyc. (Clinical), a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, The University of Hong Kong. His e-mail address is paulw@hku.hk.

If I talk about my XX’ suicide death in details, will I be traumatized? One of the most frequently asked questions from many people bereaved by suicide when being approached by researchers.

When the researchers ask about details of the suicide deaths with their proxies, will they bring harm to the proxies? One of the most frequently asked questions from many institutional review boards (IRBs).

People who ask about these questions most probably believe that talking about a loved one’s suicide death is psychologically painful and harmful.

If you have the same thought in mind, maybe you will be interested to know that a growing body of research has investigated the reactions of informants of suicide cases participating in psychological autopsy studies (one research method aims to study why people die by suicide by interviewing their families and friends) and now suggests that thorough interviews are often helpful and beneficial for people bereaved by suicide (Asgård & Carlsson-Bergström, 1991; Cooper, 1999; Hawton, Houston, Malmberg, & Simkin, 2003; Runeson & Beskow, 1991).

We speculate that there are two major contributory factors that led to the positive effects on the informants/proxies of suicide cases: (1) the opportunity for informants to ventilate their painful feelings to sympathetic interviewers (many of them have received their psychology or social work or counseling trainings and also specially trained to conduct such interviews); and (2) the opportunity for participants to feel that they have contributed to future suicide prevention. The opportunity to contribute to suicide prevention seems to be significant source of positive feelings for the participants. The motivation to help can be sufficiently strong that the individual who provides help is willing to engage in a potentially unpleasant activity and the feelings of compassion may be strong enough that they outweigh all other considerations (Batson, 1991; Wong et al., 2010).

The findings of these studies not only provide useful information for researchers designing and conducting studies about suicide and other sensitive issues, who must consider the needs and expectations of those who participate in the research, but they also provide useful information for members of the community who may be invited at some stage to participate in similar studies. Hence, if you have a chance to be approached by researchers who are devoted to suicide prevention and postvention work, I hope you will think twice before you refuse their invitations.


Asgård, U., & Carlsson-Bergström, M. (1991). Interviews with survivors of suicides: Procedures and follow-up of interview subjects. Crisis, 12(1), 21-33.

Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cooper, J. (1999). Ethical issues and their practical application in a psychological autopsy study of suicide. J Clin Nurs, 8(4), 467-475.

Hawton, K., Houston, K., Malmberg, A., & Simkin, S. (2003). Psychological autopsy interviews in suicide research: The reactions of informants. Archives of Suicide Research, 7, 73-82.

Runeson, B., & Beskow, J. (1991). Reactions of survivors of suicide victims to interviews. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 83(3), 169-173.

Wong, P. W., Chan, W. S., Beh, P. S., Yau, F. W., Yip, P. S., & Hawton, K. (2010). Research participation experiences of informants of suicide and control cases: taken from a case-control psychological autopsy study of people who died by suicide. Crisis: Journal of Crisis Intervention & Suicide, 31(5), 238-246. doi: N01H0L3150737R17 [pii] 10.1027/0227-5910/a000025


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