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2nd May 2024 Latest News

Australian-first inquiry to support service families and peers after suicide

People holding hands, grief counselling

[Warning: this article contains discussions of military and emergency services death by suicide]

An Australian-first environmental scan has highlighted a lack of accessible services within Australia for families and peers faced with the unimaginable tragedy of losing a loved one or work mate to suicide within military and emergency services.

This inquiry is being led by Senior Research Officer Dr Henry Bowen from Military and Emergency Services Health Australia (MESHA). It is a detailed examination of international evidence and investigates the hard truths that families and colleagues receive little to no support.

Dr Bowen’s environmental scan highlights the lack of support for grieving families and colleagues.

Starting a conversation around this often taboo-topic, Dr Bowen notes families and peers find themselves lost and unsure who to turn to for support all while trying to navigate and cope with an immeasurable amount of grief.

They point out a lack of published research in Australia around this topic, called postvention.

Postvention is the support given to families and colleagues who lose a loved one by suicide.

“Around 135 people are impacted by each individual suicide and 50% of individuals in society are estimated to be exposed to a suicide in their lifetime,” Dr Bowen said.

“Military and emergency service populations face even higher rates, with a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of these communities.

“Right now, there are no services within Australia offering specific assistance to families or peers in the event of an emergency service suicide, and only two services that offer specific support for the families and peers of military personnel when someone dies by suicide.”

This is what drove Dr Bowen to conduct a comprehensive and detailed environmental scan of postvention after suicide.

Compiling together all available research, services, programs, and training available both in Australia and internationally, this environmental scan is one of the most exhaustive collections of evidence on postvention after suicide for military and emergency services communities in the world.

“My research identifies gaps that need to be addressed, including mental health problems for those exposed to military or emergency services suicide, stigma and dissatisfaction with support for those left behind, a lack of adequate training for leadership support post-suicide and much more,” Dr Bowen said.

“I want my research to highlight what is lacking in this space and I hope with my evidence-based recommendations, the conversation grows stronger and louder and we can help service families and peers navigate the trauma around losing a loved one to suicide.”

The depth of these gaps has also prompted Dr Bowen to push for more work to happen in Australia, launching a research study to better understand the needs of Australian emergency services families and peers.

On the cusp of the environmental scan, Dr Bowen is also launching a new study in late May, called Support After First Responder Suicide (SAFeRS).

Dr Bowen presenting their environmental scan at the 2024 National Suicide Prevention Conference.

This study hopes to learn more about the barriers and supporters of accessing services and support after the suicide death of a first responder in Australia for service families and peers, as well as inform Australian specific guidelines for support services so they have a better understanding of how to help them during such a difficult time.

It is the first-time co-workers and family members of first responders who have died by suicide will be asked specifically about their needs in Australia.

“The environmental scan showed us where a lot of the gaps are but doesn’t tell us what is specifically needed in Australia to fill them. The SAFeRS study will allow us to speak directly to the families and co-workers who have been impacted by a first responder suicide and amplify their voices for what they need.”

Enquiries regarding the SAFeRS study can be directed to [email protected].

Click here to read the environmental scan.

10 key takeaways from Dr Bowen’s environmental scan

Prevalence and impact of suicide exposure

Suicide exposure can increase suicide risk factors and other mental health issues for families and peers. Targeted evidence-based interventions are crucial within service populations.

Unique psychological needs

Survivors of emergency service and military member suicide face complex issues like shame and stigma and face unique challenges, including complex grief. Tailored support is essential to meet the unique needs of suicide loss survivors.

Importance of postvention satisfaction

Higher satisfaction with postvention services is associated with better psychological outcomes for both suicide and accident loss survivors. This suggests that effective postvention strategies are crucial for supporting survivors’ mental health.

Focus on organisational culture

Studies indicate organisational culture within law enforcement communities can negatively impact individuals seeking support. Addressing systemic issues within organisational culture is crucial for effective postvention policy implementation.

Challenges in postvention for leadership

Leaders within military settings and emergency services face challenges in navigating postvention. There is a need for improved training and resources to effectively support leadership to guide their staff following a suicide-related event.

Importance of Peer Support

Peer-based support programs appear to be viable options for supporting military suicide survivors, however training for these peers need to be provided to build sustainable systems that protect both the peers offering support and those accessing it.

Need for a focus on family specific support

Tailored evidence-based clinical interventions and support services for children and families affected by suicide are lacking, indicating a gap.

Need for improved postvention support

Evidence-based treatments need to be developed for the effects of suicide and within service communities to inform clinical practice and improve postvention strategies.

Need for broader postvention research

There is an urgent need for the development of high-quality research to build an understanding of the acute, short-term and long-term effects of exposure to a service member’s suicide within military and emergency communities. More work is needed to comprehensively understand not only how many people are impacted, but how, why, to what extent and what their needs are to address this.

Gap in ambulance personnel research

No studies were identified exploring postvention support for ambulance personnel, despite recent findings suggesting a higher risk of death by suicide among ambulance personnel compared to their emergency services peers. This gap underscores the urgent need for research and tailored support services for this group.

This project was partially supported by the Prabha Seshadri Veteran and Emergency Services Mental Health Grant.

MESHA does not provide acute crisis support. For immediate (24 hour) crisis support, contact:

StandBy Support After Suicide, 1300727 247,

Lifeline, 13 11 14,

Open Arms Crisis Line, 1800 001 046,

Beyond Blue, 1300 224 636,

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