Partner Spotlight: Conducting Interviews with Families of Suicide Victims

Enchanté Franklin, M.S.W., M.A., forensic social work consultant, community advocate, former New Orleans police officer, author, and Ph.D. candidate at Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, is currently working with RAND Gulf States in assessing the causes behind the recent increase in suicide in New Orleans. Enchanté’s main role is to conduct interviews with suicide victims' families. She shares her experience with us here.

How are the interviews conducted with the next of kin of the recently deceased? What are the challenges?

The interviews follow a structured interview protocol. However, we enter each interview prepared with some knowledge of the victim and a view of the events that took place during the victim's last days. We are able to get this information from the coroner's notes and other unique reported identifiers related to the cause of death and last contact with the deceased. Having this basic information about the victim works as a guide while interviewing the next of kin and is a way that the interviewer can begin empathetically. The documentation also eliminates the "paper shuffle" that can distract the interviewee during the trust-building process.

What are the challenges?

Most of our challenges come from locating the next of kin. Some do not have contact information or have moved since the incident. Of course, there are emotional challenges; it can become difficult to listen to interviewees' pain and the confusion without actually entering into the painful space with them. Overall, many interviewees are grateful for the chance to honor their loved ones by telling their stories and describing the goodness of these people.

How does your prior experience help with your work as key interviewer?

My police investigation background serves as a foundation for my forensic social work, and my work as a forensic social worker with the New Orleans Forensic Center gave me experience in working in the community with adult mental illness. I've learned how to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity regarding grief and loss. My experience at RAND and my doctoral work have informed my methods as well.

Beyond skill-building and professional development, however, my life experience in this community informs my love and enthusiasm for this work.

What have you learned from interviewing next of kin that you did not expect?

First, I've learned that it is important to understand the right time to interview people who have lost loved ones to suicide. There is a healing timeline to consider, and there are different levels of need for each person or group. Some might need more support from others in their process of healing; some might just need someone to talk to and celebrate the deceased. Some just need more healing time.

Second, I've learned how effective "psychological autopsies" are as a method. We can actually see the life of the deceased. We can see the person's constant fight with mental illness, their daily pain, and desperate attempts to keep their life together. Our findings show that the majority of these people were unable to persevere in daily emotional or physical pain.

Finally, I've also learned how resilient the next of kin can be. They are able to tell the stories and share memories of their loved ones with laughter, smiles, and hope for the healing of others.