Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

An Assessment of Resources for Counselor Coping and Recovery in the Aftermath of Client Suicide

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

An Assessment of Resources for Counselor Coping and Recovery in the Aftermath of Client Suicide

Article excerpt

The authors report on interviews with counselors who had faced the crisis of client suicide about accessibility and utility of resources for coping and recovery. All identified resources were rated as potentially useful, but their utility was sometimes impaired by limited access. Recommendations for promoting recovery from client suicide are presented.

Suicide is the client crisis most frequently encountered by mental health clinicians (Bongar, 1993; Juhnke, 1994). It has been deemed an "occupational hazard" for students and practitioners in the helping disciplines (Chemtob, Bauer, Hamada, Pelowski, & Muraoka, 1989). Therapists uniformly have experienced the suicide of a client as stressful, and for a substantial number, the event has had a significant lasting impact on their personal and professional lives. Psychiatrists who have experienced a client's suicide have reported responses including guilt, sadness, anger, increased fear of dealing with suicidal patients, and anniversary reactions to the event (Sacks, Kibel, Cohen, Keats, & Tumquist, 1987; Schnur & Levin, 1985). Studies of psychologists who have lost a client to suicide have similarly identified feelings of shock, disbelief, failure, sadness, self-blame, guilt, and shame (Kleespies, Penk, & Forsyth, 1993). Professional counselors have reported intrusive thoughts, damage to personal and professional relationships, and symptoms of stress in the weeks after a client's suicide that were similar to the feelings of people for whom the impact of parental loss was severe enough to necessitate treatment (McAdams & Foster 1999). More serious pathologic grief reactions to the suicide of a client, including melancholia, atonement, and narcissistic avoidance, have also been reported (Maltsberger, 1992).

Counselors-in-training may experience a reaction to their client's suicide that is as strong, if not stronger than, that of their professional counterparts (Brown, 1987a; Kirchberg & Neimeyer, 1991; Kleespies et al., 1993; McAdams & Foster, 1999; Rodolfa, Kraft, & Reilley, 1988). Brown (1987a) reasoned that when a client commits suicide, students are more likely to feel that they have failed as persons than are seasoned professionals, because they lack the experience to distinguish personal failure from limitations of the therapeutic process. Consequently, the loss of a client to suicide may pose a greater threat to the self-concept of the student counselor than it does to the experienced professional who has a broader base of experience from which to process the event.

Student and experienced counselors alike reported that a formalizedprocedure for reviewing and processing the experience of the suicide of a client is helpful in personal and professional rehabilitation (Kleespies et al.,1993; McAdams & Foster, 2000). A number of counselors have reported that the rehabilitative process ultimately had a positive effect on them as clinicians, yielding outcomes such as heightened awareness of their own limitations and general sensitization to issues associated with client suicide (Kleespies, Smith, & Becker, 1990). Such reports give evidence that the nature of the response to a client's suicide can be a critical factor in determining whether the event increases or constricts the personal and professional development of the counselor.

Two authors have presented theoretical frames of reference for conceptualizing therapist reaction and appropriate response to the specific mental health emergency of client suicide. Brown (1987b) proposed a comprehensive five-phase developmental framework for understanding and addressing the impact of a client's suicide on the counselor both preventively and in the aftermath. Drawing from Resnick's (1969) notion of "psyhological resynthesis" as a treatment approach to a suicide victim's surviving family, Kleespies (1993) developed a model of response to client suicide that focuses primarily on its psychological impact and emphasizes the emotional regrouping and reintegration needs after a significant loss. …

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