Collaborative working: Moving beyond the willing

12 May 2016

"Get the small stuff right and it won't stand in the way of the big stuff". SPA Head of Communications Kim Borrowdale talks with Brian Dow, Director of External Affairs for Rethink Mental Illness/Co-Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) and Hamish Elvidge, Chair of Matthew Elvidge Trust/Co-Chair of The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC)

This week I have had some great meetings that have focused on learning lessons around internal engagement. That is, looking at how those working with similar objectives can work smarter, enabling the sum of the whole to be greater than its parts; whether it is working with us on the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention or other formal and informal working groups, committees or taskforces.

I spent some time with Brian Dow, Director of External Affairs for Rethink Mental Illness and Co-Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) and Hamish Elvidge, Chair of The Matthew Elvidge Trust and Co-Chair of The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC).

While Brian and Hamish came from very different perspectives in suicide prevention, they very much echoed each other in terms of their thoughts on collaborative working and stakeholder engagement to influence change. 

Brian has over two decades of experience working in the media and with charities and leads the charity’s campaigning, communications and fundraising work. He also oversees Rethink Mental Illness' involvement with the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign, which the charity runs in partnership with Mind.

Hamish is Chair of The Matthew Elvidge Trust and represents the Trust on a number of national bodies focusing on reducing the number of people, who take their own life in the UK. The Matthew Elvidge Trust was formed in 2010, shortly after his son, Matthew, took his own life. I was privileged to spend time with both men today and thank them for their insights and being so open about challenges and opportunities in suicide prevention in the United Kingdom (UK).

Below are just a few subjects we covered that I think are relevant to the work we are doing in Australia, both with the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention and other formal/informal working groups, committees and collaborative projects.

A good plan is only as good as the health system in which it operates

Both men agree that the comprehensive suicide prevention strategy released by the UK Government in 2012 is, in essence, "a good plan." It sets out clear areas for action such as better bereavement support, further reducing access to means and the need to tailor responses to mental health for specific groups. Like mental health reform plans launched last year in Australia, this strategy emphasises the need to act locally as well as nationally; with responsibility for developing suicide prevention action plans and commissioning relevant services resting with local authorities. 

While a locally driven person centric approach is commonly agreed to be a positive move, a local plan is, as Brian said today "only as good as the health system in which it operates" - both private and public health services and those that are mental health specific as well as supporting wider mental and physical health of individuals and communities.

It was clear to me that there remains a need to lobby for continuous improvement at all levels of the health system, from national to local, in parallel to efforts to develop and implement local suicide prevention plans. 

We also had a lot of conversation about accountability in terms of plan development and implementation. Two key words kept coming up - supporting and reporting. For devolved suicide prevention responsibility to be successful, local authorities need to be equipped with knowledge and support to implement. The National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) has worked with Public Health England to develop local authority guidelines to suicide prevention plan implementation, including step by step good practice. I will be interested to see how these are received by local authorities as perhaps this is something we need to do in a more structured way in Australia. Yes we have a very structured process as to how Primary Health Networks are assessing local needs and planning for change, but it would make sense to review our existing community resources in line with the resources that have been developed for Primary Health Networks.

Last year we worked with the NSW Mental Health Commission and members of local communities and small towns to develop an online toolkit for them to take action locally called Communities Matter. This resource started as a text heavy document that, after community consultation, was re-developed online into more practical, more easily consumable guidance that gives relevant examples to guide communities in developing their own plans. Perhaps we could now look at how Communities Matter dovetails with work being commissioned by Primary Health Networks?

The second recurring theme in this discussion was reporting. Apart from the mandate from Government to develop local suicide prevention plans, what transparency is there around implementation progress? Who is accountable and to whom? Our Primary Health Networks have specific KPIs they are measured against which is a great start. 

Get the small stuff right and it won't stand in way of the big stuff

From a formal alliance like The National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA)/The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention or a less formal working group, both Brian and Hamish emphasised the need for good governance. A few things they suggested need to be in place for a successful cross sector collaboration include:

  • A shared strategy and SMART objectives
  • A good Secretariat
  • Led by the right people at the right level
  • Clear key messages for all spokespeople.

Now Brian and Hamish don't claim to have gotten this all right from the start of the NSPA and TASC, and they recognise that there is some work to do on some of these things such as key messages for spokespeople. But, both agree, that when the structure is right, the group can deliver on its objectives.

This is definitely the case when it comes to the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention, convened by Suicide Prevention Australia. This group works together well on shared objectives, particularly in relation to Australia's performance in suicide prevention and what needs to improve. In recent months the group has worked closely with Government to inform the 5th National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan. See also the Australian Response to World Health Organisation Report on the Global Burden of Suicide. It is also evident in support for collaborative projects such as the innovative Systems Approach to Suicide Prevention being project managed by Black Dog Institute. However, like Brian and Hamish, I can see the need to review some of our "small stuff" to make sure agreement on the details of our working relationships do not slow important group work.

On the policy front, I was particularly interested to hear Brian's thoughts on a collaboration his organisation is involved in called the Mental Health Policy Group. In fact, coming up to election time in Australia, it was timely to talk about this group who put forward 'A Manifesto for Better Mental Health' as part of their 2015 election campaign efforts. In terms of the points above, this group is a great example of having the right people at the table; in this case policy leads rather than senior management.

No one has the whole picture in their hands

Hamish made this excellent (and frustrating) point that limits many of us from making real change in suicide prevention. That is, that no one organisation or office has the whole picture in their hands and therefore is always only putting measures in place within the "picture" they can see. Brian alluded to a similar issue in terms of addressing mental and physical health as opposed to the box of mental illness.

This is something we are quite passionate about at Suicide Prevention Australia; recognising that suicide is not just a mental health issue. The whole person needs to be supported from an early age to manage their health, both mental and physical, and receive support and training for whatever issues they may face in their lives, whether that is mental, physical, social or emotional support.

In practical project management terms, we must strive to see the whole picture in order to effectively prevent suicide and build resilience communities that know how to give help and get help. Interestingly, Hamish referenced the Choose Life Scotland project as a model that has taken an approach that seems to be working in terms of working on "one picture" and seeing tangible results in the form of reductions in suicide deaths. I am pleased to report that I will be meeting with the Choose Life Scotland team over the next couple weeks and will update you shortly after on what we can learn from them.

Later today I will be attending the quarterly meeting of The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC), the group Hamish Co-Chairs. TASC is an alliance of the leading charities dealing with suicide prevention and mental health issues. This group of individuals know the pain suicide brings and are driven by their lived experience to make change. TASC came together in November 2010 as an initiative to encourage collaboration and prevent duplication of efforts and funding in the area of suicide research and prevention. 

I will cover this meeting in a separate blog as I suspect you’ve read enough from me for today. In the meantime, have a look at the TASC website to find out more. If you're interested in learning more about the Australian Lived Experience Network run by Suicide Prevention Australia, have a look at our website for more information.

As always, if you have any questions or contacts you’d like me to add to my UK meeting schedule this month, please get in touch.

Kim Borrowdale, Head of Communications

Note. This blog has been published as part of Kim’s commitment to sharing lessons from the UK as recipient of an Ian Potter Foundation International Learning and Development Grant. She will also be reporting on findings and observations at the 2016 National Suicide Prevention Conference in Canberra in July.


Read 1 June blog post "National strategy and community action: Top down, bottom up and inbetween" 

Read 21 May blog post "No health without mental health: development sector lessons"

Read 19 May blog post "Give them a gift: Thinking differently about data"

Read 17 May blog post "Somewhere between heartbreak and hope"

Read 12 May blog post "Collaborative working: Moving beyond the willing"

Read 10 May blog post "So what? Translating research into practice"