Marking world suicide prevention day

Research in the news lanternsOn the 10th September 2015, across the globe, people came together to mark the 13th annual World Suicide Prevention Day. This saw reports of candlelight vigils in the UK, flash-mobs in India, the release of balloons across America, and in Ireland, famous landmarks were lit up in orange. It is exactly this kind of global solidarity that the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) wants to promote; according to latest figures over 800,000 people die by suicide across the world each year, so it is crucial that countries work together to share strategies for suicide prevention.

This year’s World Suicide Prevention Day also marked the two year anniversary of the launch of ‘Preventing Suicide in England’, England’s cross-government suicide prevention strategy, which aims to both reduce the suicide rate and improve the support available to those affected by suicide. This was the first time that support for people who have been bereaved by suicide was addressed in UK policy- something our Trustee, Amy Meadows, has also been trying to improve (just last week she launched Help is at Hand- a new resource to support people after someone has taken their own life). However, since the global financial crisis in 2008, suicide rates within the UK have been rising, with 4, 513 people dying by suicide during 2013 – an increase of around 5% on the previous year. This is a saddening, but perhaps not unsurprising statistic, given that there is strong evidence for a link between economic recession, unemployment rates and suicide. This summer, suicide statistics hit the headlines, with the launch of the Annual Report from the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness, which cites a 73% increase in the numbers of men aged 45-54 taking their own lives since 2006. We know that men are over three times more likely to die by suicide than women, and it seems that middle aged men are particularly at risk.

So what can we do to address this issue? Alongside the development of specialist support, England’s suicide prevention strategy identifies research as a key area for action. Research is essential for the development of effective approaches to suicide prevention, but we need to make sure our studies make a meaningful contribution. Whilst completing my PhD (into self-harm within inpatient services), I was surprised to find that the vast majority of research in this area was focused on identifying ‘risk factors’ for suicide, whilst very few studies investigated how we can support people who are suicidal. Studies investigating risk factors often claim to have identified characteristics which can help us to predict whether or not someone will take their own life (see here for an example from recent news reports). Whilst this research is valuable, simply using these types of ‘indicators’ to predict risk is not the only approach to suicide prevention, and can be un-reliable. We need more studies which help us to develop a better understanding of what approaches work in suicide prevention, and what families, friends and our local communities can do to help people who are feeling suicidal access support, re-connect with life and start to feel more positive about living.

This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day, Preventing Suicide: Reaching Out and Saving Lives’, considered the importance of social connections. The widespread stigma associated suicide means it can be very difficult for people, particularly men, experiencing suicidal feelings to speak out. Recently, a number of powerful social media campaigns such as project semi-colon, and #RUOK? have been doing their part to encourage people to start conversations about these issues, both online, and within their local communities, but we still need research evidence to help us determine the impact of these types of interventions.

Suicides are preventable, but it is clear that more research is needed to make this possible. We also need to understand how we can best support people who have lost someone to suicide. A number of us at McPin have some expertise in this area- through both personal and professional experience, and we have been thinking about how we can address these issues in our future projects, so if you have any ideas please do get in touch.

Karen James, Research Manager, The McPin Foundation.