My Practice – Mark Sloman

Is it a sign of weakness for a social worker to feel emotional pain when a client dies in tragic circumstances? No, says Mark Sloman

This year is my 10th working with adults who have severe or enduring mental health problems. In that time I have known three clients who have killed themselves.

Suicide is so tragic and so awful. Most adults, whether they have mental health problems or not, will have some suicidal thoughts at some time or another, but these are usually fleeting and rare. But what emotionally dark places some people must find themselves in to turn those thoughts into the ultimate action.

I have been closely involved professionally in a case of a client of mine who recently took his own life, and it is time to explore the impact this has had on me.

I am a fairly “heart on your sleeve” kind of chap, dedicated to my work and to the people I serve and work for (my clients, not my employer!). This recent experience has hit me hard I feel great sadness and great personal pain. Should I be feeling this? This is a question I have been struggling with since I learned of this person’s death six months ago. My conclusion has been to ignore the word “should” and focus on the personal emotions, being true to myself and how I feel and think rather than conform to some “appropriate” stereotype of the hardened professional trotting out standard lines about “coping with everything and anything” or feeling the need to “put on a brave face”.

The truth is that this experience hurt me it made me feel desperately sad and deeply unhappy. It would be wrong to give details about this person’s tragic circumstances but, as is often the case with people who end their own lives, this person was not considered to be at “high risk” of trying to commit suicide. There was no feeling from family, friends or, indeed, the coroner that anyone could have done anything more or different to prevent this terrible tragedy. I do not blame myself. I do not even feel angry for not doing anything more or different I feel satisfied that I did all that I could. Yet that doesn’t diminish the sadness and pain that I feel for this person’s loss.

Much has been written about the impact that suicide can have on close family and friends, the trauma and distress that it can cause and the lasting effects years later. I have found being open, honest and true to my own feelings helped me deal with this tragedy being careful of not falling into the conformist trap of “I’m OK, thanks”.

Actually, no I am not all right – I feel deeply sad and distressed. I’ve reflected on my own feelings a great deal and have concluded that I am satisfied that I feel this way. I am comfortable to feel pain and to have the confidence to display signs of upset and distress in a supportive workplace without it being seen as a sign of weakness or “not coping”.I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to respond and feel this loss in any other way.

Mark Sloman is a social worker, community mental health team, Somerset

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