What we know and how we can prevent it.
BY TORI DEANGELIS
A colleague’s death is hard to contemplate. But the suicides of two psychologists in 2008 — as well as those of noted psychologists Michael J. Mahoney, PhD, in
2006, and Lawrence Kohlberg, PhD, in 1987 — prompted an ad
hoc APA committee to look closely at what is known about this
hazard and what the profession can do about it.
The group – led by Phillip M. Kleespies, PhD, of the VA
Boston Healthcare System and made up of members of APA’s
Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance, the APA Practice
Directorate and the APA Div. 12 (Clinical) Section on Clinical
Emergencies and Crises — examined research in four critical
areas: suicide rates, risk factors, impact on others and how
colleagues support psychologists in distress. They also examined
the current state of prevention and intervention, and suggested
ways to enhance training in this vital area.
In terms of rates, research is mixed and sparse about
whether psychologists are more likely to commit suicide than
other professions, write the working group members in the
June issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice
(Vol. 42, No. 3). Some studies show elevated rates among white
female psychologists, for example, but not among white male
psychologists or black psychologists, and there are no studies
looking at psychologists of other ethnicities.
However, several studies support the idea that psychologists
may have an elevated risk for suicidal ideation and behavior
compared to general population, the team also found. A 2009
APA survey, for instance, found that 40 percent to 60 percent
of psychological practitioners reported some disruption in
professional functioning due to burnout, anxiety or depression.
Moreover, case studies suggest that a therapist’s suicide can
profoundly and negatively affect clients, while other studies
indicate that psychologists are often insufficiently educated on
the best ways to intervene with a distressed colleague.
Given these factors, the authors recommend the following
• A more concerted and formal effort to build education on
suicide risk and prevention into graduate training.
• Better training of professionals on possible signs of
suicidality and ways to intervene with struggling colleagues, for
example through continuing education and state psychological
• More emphasis normalizing the challenges of being a
practicing psychologist, an approach increasingly taken by
many state psychological associations’ colleague assistance
programs. One aspect of this strategy is fostering the use of
regular self-care strategies for all psychologists.
• Better education on “post-ventions,” or what to do in the
event of a colleague’s suicide. This includes having immediate
support and mechanisms in place for all affected individuals,
and longer-term supports for those who may need them. In
general for the profession, having a professional will in place
can greatly facilitate how patient records and issues are handled
in the event of death from any cause.
• More research on whether psychologists are at unique
risk for suicide given possible self-selection factors and factors
specific to the therapy profession, such as the intense and
isolated nature of the work.
Whether or not research ends up showing an elevated risk
among psychologists, it’s vital the profession tackle all aspects
of prevention and post-vention given the potentially profound
effect of suicide on clients and others, they write.
“Suicide by psychologists, individuals with special expertise
in human behavior, seems to be particularly fraught with
challenges and raises concerns specific to psychology such
as doubt in the value of therapy,” they write. “Identifying
risks, reducing the stigma associated with acknowledging
hopelessness or despair, and overcoming other barriers to
intervention are critical to reducing the incidence of suicide.” n
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N. Y.