Last spring, I interviewed successfully for what I can only describe as my dream job. For the first time, six years after finishing my PhD, I could see a clear future in academia. Two months before I was due to start, my sister ended her life. Beyond the emotional complexities of suicide bereavement, I couldn’t have predicted the ways my working life would be affected.
A recent study at UCL found that staff and students whose loved ones had died through suicide were 80% more likely to drop out of their job or studies than those where death was from other causes. Every experience of grief is unique, but an emerging body of research has begun to consider the distinct challenges faced by those who have lost loved ones through suicide. Alexandra Pitman, who authored the UCL study, suggests “employers should be aware of the significant impact that suicide bereavement has on people’s working lives and make adjustments to help their staff return to work”.
Since suicide is often preceded by strained relationships, and the cause of death may be traumatic, it can lead to a particularly difficult mixture of grief, anger, blame, relief and a search for answers.
I threw myself into the new job, seeking an escape in the fact that none of my new colleagues knew what I’d been through since the interview. Anxieties about presenting myself as the person they had hired, making good impressions and delivering on all I had promised are shared by many working in academia. They gave me the opportunity to dissociate from the part of me bound in grief.
There have been times in the classroom when the strain of this performance must have shown. Like most lecturers in early career or changing roles, I was teaching other people’s reading lists: books by Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and David Foster Wallace meant there was no avoiding the subject of suicide, or the often frank approach to it from students and colleagues for whom it is primarily a literary matter. Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art stopped me cold for what felt like minutes mid-lecture.
I’ve always been supportive of the use of trigger warnings and the need to create safe spaces for discussion. Now I was bracing myself to get through distressing sessions. It’s funny how nobody talks about the need to handle difficult subject matters with the same sensitivity toward colleagues as we show toward students.
This year has also made me more aware of the fact that an institution can only offer the support we ask for. In January, at my partner’s encouragement, I finally explained the situation to my departmental head. I was offered compassionate leave without hesitation, but declined, worrying that too much time to myself might make things worse. Although it helps to know the support is there in principle, that doesn’t make asking for help any less difficult.
The need to improve mental health support for university staff has begun to receive wider attention. But available support still needs to be better highlighted for new staff, especially when it might be overlooked amid other induction information. All staff should have opportunities to disclose personal concerns to a mentor or someone who isn’t responsible for managing their performance. The complexity of suicide bereavement also shows the need for more flexible support for staff coping with different types of trauma, which might include reduced workloads or a phased return from leave.
Various studies have found that the experience of suicide is likely to prompt loved ones to question their own sense of purpose. The NHS’s guidance (pdf) puts this existential dilemma in simple terms: “the fact that a person’s death appeared to involve an element of choice raises painful questions that death from natural or accidental causes does not”. I can’t imagine admitting in a work context how much my perspective has been jolted.
It’s particularly tough in higher education since teaching and research are inherently optimistic ventures. Every year, a fresh cohort of students arrive, full of potential, while another moves on, for whom we have to believe we’ve done our best. Performance reviews, promotion, and calls to demonstrate the impact of what we do are necessarily future-looking. Like our careers, society as a whole is meant to move forward, with universities playing an essential role in that progress. The stasis of grief and the pessimism associated with suicide bereavement jars in this context.
Although the day-to-day needs of my students sustain me for now, I find it impossible to imagine a future that doesn’t include my sister. All priorities have been called into question. In the longer term, I worry what the system will make of me if I can’t re-orientate myself.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
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