For gatekeepers: Seeking support after suicide

Gatekeepers may be deeply affected when they lose someone to suicide; here's how you can seek help

As a gatekeeper, you can be impacted by a person’s death, even if you were not a close friend or family member. A gatekeeper who has lost someone they know to suicide may go through a gamut of emotions:

  • Shock when you hear the news; not being able to come to terms with the fact that the person is no more.
  • A sense of anger at the person who has taken their life: How could they have done this? As a gatekeeper, you may recall that the person promised to reach out when they felt desperate, or assured you that they would stay away from making hasty decisions until a certain period of time.
  • Shame about not being good or effective enough to help the person reconsider suicide.
  • Guilt, when you question yourself about whether you may have done something that may have made them consider ending their life. Was it something you did or said? You may replay your interactions with the person, looking for what could have possibly gone wrong.
  • Despair: is it really worth being in the role of a gatekeeper if your efforts are going ‘waste’?

A suicide can affect anyone who was involved in the person’s care. Gatekeepers, who may not always be from the immediate group of family or friends, may still be deeply affected.

Most of us, when we hear about suicide, tend to look for that one factor that could have made the person attempt suicide; we draw conclusions that if only that one issue had been addressed, the person would not have contemplated suicide.

As a gatekeeper, it is important to remember that suicide is not caused by one factor alone. There is no easy solution or quick fix; it is due to a complex set of reasons and cannot be tracked to one action or event as being the cause.
 
Most importantly, remember that no gatekeeper is completely responsible for the actions of the person they are supporting. A gatekeeper’s job is to help the person who is contemplating suicide by pointing them to the right mental health support. It is not the gatekeeper’s job to make sure that the person is able to face all their challenges; the gatekeeper is the bridge between the person and the mental health practitioner, who will help the person build their resilience.
 
Who is a gatekeeper?

A gatekeeper is a person who believes that suicide can be prevented and is willing to give time and energy for this cause. They could be a teacher, parent, warden, boss, colleague or a community leader. A gatekeeper is trained to  offer psychosocial support someone who may be contemplating suicide by assessing the risk and pointing them to mental health services in the community.

Read about how you, as a family member or close friend, can cope with the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Seeking support as a gatekeeper

People in close proximity to the person who has died by suicide can be affected by the loss, and may have intense emotional reactions. Some may develop depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you feel overwhelmed, or unable to manage your emotions, get in touch with a professional in your community.

It’s also entirely normal to question yourself, and wonder if something you did or said pushed the person to attempt suicide; or if you could have done something to prevent it. You may not be able to predict the reason; there could have been one trigger that drove the person to contemplate suicide. At the same time, it could also be useful to go through this process of questioning, in order to gain insights into whether you could have done something differently. Recognizing, understanding, accepting and expressing your thoughts and feelings can help you deal with the event.

Mental health experts say that when they lose a client to suicide, they meet with other professionals who are part of their support group to deal with the incident. This offers them a chance to express how they feel about the incident, seek support and also identify what could be done differently the next time. A senior psychiatrist cautions gatekeepers not to berate themselves, and see it rather as a learning experience. “You are one cog in the wheel, and are not expected to be there for the person, whether physically or emotionally, all the time. Share your success stories – and the not-so-successful ones. Make a good assessment of the risk involved and signpost it to a professional. Seek support for yourself,” she adds.

Here are some things that organizations and communities can keep in mind:

  • It is important that gatekeepers do not work in isolation. The community or organization has to ensure that there is a strong support system in place, and regular meetings where gatekeepers and mental health professionals can share their stories, and learn from each others’ experiences.
  • Have an effective postvention programme in place. This will help identify gatekeepers who are vulnerable after losing someone to suicide. An effective postvention program has a support group to assist the gatekeeper’s recovery, enhance their resilience, and prevent burnout.
  • Provide emotional support to gatekeepers by offering access to a trained professional. In a workplace, the gatekeeper may need handholding for a while before they return to work.

What you can do as a gatekeeper:

  • If you feel overwhelmed, call a friend from your gatekeeper network to give you some support. Those gatekeepers who do not have a strong support system can call a suicide helpline. Many suicide helplines offer help to those who have survived the suicide of someone in their care.
  • Understand that such an incident is very likely to affect you. Acknowledge that it affects your self-confidence and may affect your work as a gatekeeper for a while. Give yourself some time off if you need to, and ask for support.
  • Reflect on your own limitations as a gatekeeper: there is only so much you can do, and you cannot physically control another individual. If you have any legal concerns, share them with a trained professional who can help you resolve and overcome them.
  • Develop your own support network, with other gatekeepers or mental health services that you are linked to: your local physician, psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist. Stay in touch with these people even when things are going well for you.
  • Enhance your resilience by cultivating activities you find interesting; find some meaning beyond gatekeeping, Take care of your physical health; get enough rest and food to stay strong.

It’s essential to remind yourself that you chose to be a gatekeeper because you found some meaning in the work. Take some time to introspect about what the process has meant to you. Take a break; find resources and a way to motivate yourself to continue. Every gatekeeper’s contribution is of immense value and is vital.