By Sharon McDonnell, 2020
Keeping safe: suicide prevention
A death by suicide leaves so many unanswered questions and so much grief in its wake. Over 6,000 people in the UK and Republic of Ireland take their own lives each year. The loss of a single person is a tragedy – for them, their families and everyone who knew them. Loss of life on this scale is a significant public health concern. So many of these deaths are preventable. How can we protect lives and help to keep people safe?
"People engaged in trying to protect lives in any setting, whether clinical or community, need support themselves." - Juliet Lyon, Advisory Council member
From September you can apply for a Churchill Fellowship with a focus on suicide prevention or on support for people bereaved by a death by suicide. Uniquely, becoming a Churchill Fellow offers the chance ‘to be the change you want to see’, to learn from best practice in suicide prevention and postvention across the world and to draw on and apply that learning back in the UK.
As a member of the Fellowship’s Advisory Council, I am hugely pleased that this theme has been chosen and developed in partnership with The Samaritans and the John Armitage Charitable Trust. I can see, from Fellows’ reports and updates already received in this field, the international knowledge and insights that are being gathered and shared.
I am also the chair of the national Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody. The panel’s role is to advise ministers and officials in the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care on how best to prevent deaths, both natural and self-inflicted, in all forms of state custody and help them to meet their obligation to protect lives. Our ambit covers prisons, police custody, probation approved premises, immigration centres, secure hospitals and people detained under the Mental Health Act.
A guiding principle is to take account of the views of people who have been detained in custody themselves, some of whom work 24/7 as Samaritan Listeners, and of bereaved families, many of whom work tirelessly to try to ensure that no other family has to go through the grief and pain that they have experienced. During the pandemic we have heard from people about severely restricted regimes and the impact of being held in a prison within a prison. One man wrote to the panel: ‘‘I'm sure there is a lot of prisoners suffering from severe anxiety, isolating in their cells not knowing when they're going to be unlocked.” Even in these tough times, some prison officers and nurses have found ways to offer support. We were sent this prison radio message: “But for these people on D wing the staff know my head’s fallen off so many times. I've tried to kill myself. I've tried to do so many crazy things to myself and I just appreciate the way the staff just keep picking me up. Just keep bringing me back and keeping me focused.”
Too often the threat of suicide, and high levels of risk, can lead those trying to help to believe that whatever they say and do is wrong, to lose confidence and to feel helpless and hopeless themselves. By sharing what you have learned during a Churchill Fellowship, I know that you will help to improve the skills and resilience of people doing an impossible job in some of the bleakest environments.
People engaged in trying to protect lives in any setting, whether clinical or community, need support themselves. Churchill Fellows have been described as ‘a community of changemakers’. Churchill Fellowship staff, Advisory Council members and Trustees can see how much support and encouragement Fellows give to one another across all fields and spheres of influence during and after their Fellowships. Fellows’ achievements are many and various. May I encourage you wholeheartedly to learn more about keeping people safe, about being wise before the event - and so reducing the terrible toll of suicide and self-harm?
Juliet Lyon is a member of our Advisory Council and chairs the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody and is a visiting professor in the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London. She was formerly director of the Prison Reform Trust, director general of Penal Reform International and a Women’s National Commissioner. Working across mental health and education, she has headed a school psychiatric unit, directed community education in a comprehensive school and managed therapeutic communities. Juliet was a founding advisor to ChildLine.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.