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The Differential Impact of Suicide Type on Provision of Social Support: A Qualitative Comparison

  • Author(s): Villa, Daniel Paul
  • Advisor(s): Scharlach, Andrew
  • et al.


The Differential Impact of Suicide Type on Provision of Social Support: A Qualitative Comparison

by Daniel Paul Villa

Doctor of Philosophy in Social Welfare

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Andrew Scharlach, Chair

The objective of this exploratory study was to examine how various modes of death impact the availability, perception, and allocation of social support to bereaved survivors. Specifically, case vignettes describing different types of suicide were utilized to address the following inquiry: What factors typify how and why social support is offered to survivors of traumatic death, particularly suicide? Twenty-five participants, consisting of graduate students and older adults, engaged in semi-structured interviews to explore responses to four fictitious instances of suicide and one instance of non-suicide as a control case. Data analysis via selective coding, immersion/crystallization, and content analysis generated ten themes (reflective of three overarching categories) as the most salient features typifying the provision of aid to mourners: Patterns and Variations in Type of Aid ("Core" versus "Vignette-Specific" Support), General Considerations in the Provision of Aid (The Culture of Helping, "Filling the Void," "Let the Need Be My Guide," Identification, Survivor Relationship ("Closeness"), Degree of Immersion, "Casserole Lady" Dilemma), and Vignette-Specific Considerations in the Provision of Aid (Social Significance of the Death, Perceived Culpability).

Based upon these findings, various conclusions can be drawn. First, there exists an inherent proclivity within observers to offer aid to survivors, as all respondents indicated the need to provide support regardless of the individual conditions surrounding the death. Second, the manner in which a death occurs appears to affect the degree to which support is rendered, especially if the death somehow deviates from social norms or raises inquiry regarding culpability on the part of the decedent and/or the survivor. Third, the survivor's own adjudication of the situation, as evidenced in his or her personal experiences, perceived relationship to the survivor and/or decedent, and assessment of needed support, also influences what is offered. Interestingly, while some themes related more directly to suicide-specific vignettes, most reflected generic features indicative of how respondents would offer aid under any case of death, signaling the need for continued research within this domain. Considerations to address in future research include the further exploration of other typologies of suicide and the incorporation of other methodological techniques to compare different modes of death.

Implications for future practice are also considered, underscoring the significance of identifying social factors related to specific instances of suicide. Because the study could not possibly capture the full scope of this type of death, individual assessment of survivor needs by social workers and allied professionals becomes crucial in addressing and attenuating a range of potentially negative grief experiences, including stigma, shame, guilt, and depression. Overall, the study's findings are intended to advance the scope of qualitative attitudes research with respect to social support availability and modality of suicide, as the current body of literature contains no studies that investigate the nuances of this particular phenomenon.

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