Accessing support and coping after watching someone drown

Watching someone drown can be a traumatic experience that can have a profound impact. According to the National Water Safety Forum, drowning is responsible for around 400 deaths each year in the UK, with many of these occurring in natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and the sea.


Death by drowning is a potential risk in a number of aquatic activities, comparable to road cycling and motoring accidents. The Outdoor Swimming Society presents further statistics on the number of deaths by activities and compares them to non-aquatic rates.

Drowning can be fatal or non-fatal (previously referred to as near-drowning). Whether the person survived the incident or died by drowning, witnessing such an event is likely to cause distress. Depending on what happened, the nature of the relationship, and many other factors, the experience of seeing someone drown can affect people in a variety of diverse ways.

After witnessing someone drown

Whether you were wild swimming, diving, ice-skating, walking by a river or simply enjoying a day at the beach, witnessing someone drown can be an incredibly distressing experience. The emotional impact can be particularly devastating if the person who drowned was a friend, family member, or spouse.

If you have witnessed someone drown, you may experience a range of emotional and psychological reactions. Where the drowning resulted in bereavement, the witness may also experience grief. These reactions can vary depending on your relationship with the person who drowned, the circumstances surrounding the event, and your own personal history of loss and trauma.

Those who were present during the drowning or attempted to rescue the person are potentially vulnerable to experiencing psychological trauma. Be aware that dismissing the impact on yourself is not unusual, particularly if you were not physically harmed, or you did not have a close relationship with the person who drowned. For some people, it may be the loss of a valued activity or an aspect of personal identity, which is the main source of distress.

There is no “right way” to react

The psychological trauma that can result from witnessing a drowning can manifest in a variety of ways. Some people may experience emotions such as sadness, numbness or anger. Others may suffer from post-traumatic reactions which can include flashbacks, nightmares, and feelings of guilt or shame.

For some individuals, the issue may be a combination of both grief and psychological trauma. It is important to note that these reactions do not necessarily mean that you have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not everyone who witnesses a traumatic event will develop PTSD, anxiety or depression.

One common response to witnessing death by drowning is guilt, even if there was nothing you could have done to prevent it. Individuals may question whether they could have done something differently or whether they could have prevented the incident from happening. It is important to recognise that these feelings are a normal response to a traumatic event and that seeking support can help alleviate the distress caused by these thoughts.

You may notice difficulty being around water or returning to the activity in which the drowning occurred. Perhaps you cannot (or choose not to) visit places or do activities related to the incident, such as being around water or engaging in water-based activities. Avoiding these things may be a necessary aspect of self-care and useful for a time. However, preventing all exposure may also make it harder to process the traumatic experience.

Part of recovering is figuring out what works for you and responding to your own needs.

Looking after yourself after seeing someone drown

It is important to take time to process the event and seek support before attempting to return to these activities. It may also be helpful to participate in activities related to the incident in a controlled and safe way, such as returning to a relatively low-risk environment to gradually overcome the fear of water.

Depending on where you witnessed the drowning, what feels safe will vary. For example, if the incident occurred in open water swimming, visiting an indoor pool may be an accessible starting point.

Steps you can take to help yourself heal and recover after experiencing trauma may include talking to someone about your experience, whether it is a friend, family member or a therapist. Talking about the experience can help to reduce the intensity of emotions, process the trauma, and gain an alternative perspective on the event.

You may find activities like exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature helpful. Do not underestimate the value of engaging in relaxing activities or simply taking time to rest in supporting the process of healing. 

How can therapy help?

If your reactions persist or interfere with your ability to function, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. There are various evidence-based treatments available, such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) or forms of cognitive-behavioural therapy.

EMDR is psychotherapy that is effective in treating post-traumatic stress. The approach involves a series of guided eye movements while the individual focuses on the traumatic event. This technique can help reduce the intensity of traumatic memories and alleviate the distress associated with them. 

EMDR can be beneficial for people severely impacted by trauma, who need support to heal and restore their life. However, it is worth being aware that it is also useful for those who are not so severely impacted. It can be offered as a short, preventative therapy and may be of interest to people who wish to return to the activity or environment. It may be that, although you are coping well, you are keen to support a prompt return to work or a valued hobby and address potential triggers in advance. This may be particularly applicable where the person who drowned has survived or is not well known to you. 

Witnessing someone drown can be an incredibly traumatic experience, and it is important to seek support if needed. This can involve talking to friends and family members, seeking professional help, or taking time for oneself to process the event. Everyone copes with trauma differently and at their own pace. Remember, it is normal to experience a range of emotions after a traumatic event, and seeking support can help individuals work through these feelings and move forward.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hexham, Northumberland, NE46
Written by Dr Laura Walton, Clinical Psychologist
Hexham, Northumberland, NE46

Dr Laura Walton is a Clinical Psychologist (swimmer, and scuba diving instructor). Providing remote/online therapy, including ACT, CBT & EMDR. She specialises in therapy for trauma and anxiety, and has a particular interest in supporting the well-being of people who love water (swimmers, divers etc.).

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