In February 2022, a suicide prevention consensus statement was agreed by the National Police Wellbeing Service, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), College of Policing, Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), Home Office, Unison, Police Federation and Police Superintendents Association. Now that the statement is agreed and published, we have funded and commissioned a toolkit working closely with the Samaritans given their expertise in this area.
This toolkit aims to help senior leadership in police forces to support staff after the loss of a colleague to suicide. It may also be adapted to support staff who lose a family member or close friend outside the force to suicide.
Police officers and staff from different roles across the service, as well as membership organisations, have contributed their insights and experiences to the development of this toolkit. We have also used good practice from other sectors and organisations including the ambulance service.
Section 1 - introduction
- Who should read this toolkit?
- Why is postvention important?
- The need for postvention in the police service
- Grief after suicide
- How to use this toolkit
- Tackle stigma around suicide
- Form a postvention group
- Agree your postvention approach
- What to do: immediately
- What to do: next 48 hours
- What to do: the following weeks and months
- Managing the risk to other employees
- Supporting and attending the funeral
- Helping staff who want to ‘do something’
- Reinforce and build trust in leadership
- Getting back to ‘normal’
This postvention toolkit represents a milestone in our journey to improve the support we provide to our people in the aftermath of a colleague’s suicide. Although it is designed for this purpose, by its very existence it adds value to the service’s consensus commitment to work collectively to prevent and reduce suicide.
Whilst working through the toolkit, you will gain more knowledge and understanding about the impact suicide can have on those close to it and you will have more confidence to talk openly about this sensitive subject. These conversations will contribute towards your workplace becoming a compassionate, psychologically safe place which in turn will contribute to reducing deaths by suicide.
Andy Rhodes, Oscar Kilo
Who should read this toolkit?
It should be read by all senior people in a position to plan and implement a response in the event of a death of an employee by suicide. It is important to recognise the response will be challenging for everyone involved. Having a shared responsibility for postvention in your force is recommended.
The terms ‘suicide’ and ‘died by suicide’ are used in this toolkit, but please note that a conclusion of suicide can only be formally determined following a coroner’s inquest. This usually takes several months to complete. The death may be talked about as suicide by colleagues, the media and others, and it is important that postvention support for colleagues happens straight away, in any cases where it is a probable suicide.
The conclusion following an inquest might not be one which you or employees expected so it is best to be conscious that this is a period of uncertainty. It might be helpful for your communications at this time to reference a sudden unexplained death, ‘possible suicide’, or ‘may have died by suicide’, to enable necessary conversations to happen in advance of any coroner’s ruling.
Avoid using outdated and judgmental terms like ‘committed suicide’, ‘successful suicide’ and phrases such as ‘in a better place’ or ‘found peace’.
This toolkit provides guidance for when there is strong evidence that suicide is the cause of death, and when the community – colleagues, relatives and friends – are responding to what they believe is a suicide and so experiencing the corresponding impact and emotions.
Police officers and staff are regularly called upon to respond to an event where someone has taken their own life, however when that person is a member of our policing family this can deeply affect our staff in different and more personal ways. As Chief Constable I am keen to support in any way I can in alleviating the pressure and stress caused in such tragic circumstances. I wholeheartedly support postvention. We’ve made a plan and I urge every leader across the service to do the same so we can enhance our compassionate and sympathetic approach to our staff when they face difficult situations.
Shaun Sawyer, Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall Police.
Why is postvention important?
Postvention refers to the actions taken to provide support after someone dies by suicide. Evidence shows that people who have been bereaved or affected by suicide are almost three times more at risk of suicidal ideation. 1 It is estimated that as many as 1 in 10 people attempt suicide after losing someone to suicide and 8% drop out of work or education. 2 The impact of a suicide is far-reaching and up to 135 people can be affected by one death by suicide. 3
Bereavement by suicide is complicated and unpredictable. Therefore, it is important to have a clear and supportive postvention plan in place in workplaces and all other environments where people are in close contact, such as schools and colleges.
What is a cluster?
The term suicide cluster describes a situation in which more suicides than expected occur in terms of time, place, or both. It can apply to a situation where there are two or more deaths by suicide in a workplace or team over a short space of time. If this applies to your workplace, contact your Local Authority’s Director of Public Health for specific guidance and support.
The need for postvention in the police service
Suicide within the police service is a rare event but when it does happen it can be devastating. The ripple effect can impact people beyond even those with the closest working relationships to the person who has died. In policing, responding to sudden and traumatic death can be an everyday experience. But when this becomes personal, it is even more important for officers and staff to take the time to process the loss. Officers and staff may try to get back to ‘business as usual’ quickly but can find that the complex emotions following a death by suicide of a colleague are not easily brushed away.
We are probably better at dealing with things at arms-length for other people than we are dealing with it for ourselves. The service is improving in recognising that actually, we can be damaged by it ourselves and we’re not bulletproof.
Grief after suicide
Bereavement after suicide is complex and it affects different people in different ways. It is often called ‘grief with the volume turned up’. Alongside sadness and loss can be feelings of anger, shame, and guilt. Some people react by feeling numb. Some feel it would be easier to explain the death in a different way. Others may not know what to say. All these responses are normal.
Officers and staff have told us that, due to the nature of policing and investigations, they struggled with feelings of guilt that they did not see what was happening with their colleague or ‘spot the signs’.
- Read 'How you might be feeling' on Support after Suicide’s website for more on emotions following a suicide.
This complex grief can complicate how to respond to those bereaved by suicide. There won’t be just one way to support, or a set pattern to the grief of those affected by the loss. This makes it essential to see each affected employee as someone with their own specific support needs which may change over time.
When a colleague officer at a certain stage in their lives takes their own life, it produces a vulnerability in officers and staff. They start to unpack all the traumas which they have been holding within themselves. Death becomes personal where it may not have been previously.
Straight away we take on a problem-solving role. We want to spring into action and do things – having guidance helps us to take that step back and think about what the best thing to do in THIS situation.
1 Hill, N., Robinson, J., Pirkis, J., Andriessen, K., Krysinska, K., & Payne, A. et al. (2020). Association of suicidal behavior with exposure to suicide and suicide attempt: A systematic review and multilevel meta-analysis. PLOS Medicine, 17(3), e1003074. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003074
3 Pitman, A. L., Osborn, D. P. J., Rantell, K., & King, M. B. (2016). Bereavement by suicide as a risk factor for suicide attempt: a crosssectional national UK-wide study of 3432 young bereaved adults. BMJ Open, 6 (1), ARTN e009948. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009948
3 Cerel, J. et al. (2018). How many people are exposed to suicide? Not six. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12450