Degree In Sight

Given that a quarter of psychologists will lose a client to suicide, it's essential that students consider how they will cope after such a crisis, experts say. Here are ways to enhance your readiness:

  • Request training if you don't have it. University of Washington graduate student Joyce Bittinger, who works with suicidal patients, advises students to address the possibility of client suicide early on. In her program, students discuss their feelings about suicide and come to a clear position on it and also work through their obligations and limitations as therapists.

If your program does not include a component like this, ask your supervisors and faculty to make it a formal part of training, she suggests. "You don't want to be facing these issues for the first time when you have a client who might actually kill himself," she says.

  • Document the therapy. When working with clients with suicidal ideation or behavior, take notes. They can offer emotional and legal protection in the event of a tragedy, says Cornell University's Gregory Eells, PhD. Include details on how you are acting as a responsible therapist, which should include that you are assessing the client for suicide risk and using your best professional judgment in working with them.

"If something bad happens, it's really helpful to be able to look back at your records and say, 'I'm proud of what I did with them, even though the outcome wasn't good,'" he notes.

  • Support those who have lost a client. If a colleague has experienced a client suicide, reach out by inviting him or her to group events or asking if he or she wants to talk, says Vanessa McGann, PhD, co-chair of the American Association of Suicidology's Clinician Survivor Task Force.

"You may think they need their time and space, or you may not feel very comfortable asking them about what happened," she says. "But this is a devastating event, and they need your support."

—T. DeAngelis