Somewhere between heartbreak and hope: Lived experience in suicide prevention

17 May 2016

SPA Head of Communications Kim Borrowdale blog post on attending The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC) in the UK quarterly meeting.


As someone whose family has been touched by suicide as well as a communications professional whose job it is to translate the work of those in the suicide prevention sector, I often feel like my emotions are fluctuating somewhere between heartbreak and hope. Never has this been more true than at The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC) quarterly meeting I attended last week.

I was honoured to be invited to attend this meeting in central London to learn more about the group’s history, current work and future objectives. I was also invited to share Australian successes and challenges in suicide prevention and talk through Suicide Prevention Australia projects and our members’ work.

The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC) is an alliance of the leading charities dealing with suicide prevention and mental health issues.

On their website, they state that “TASC believes that, while not every suicide is preventable, many of the thousands that occur each year could have been prevented, had the appropriate help and resources been available. The stigma & taboo surrounding mental health and suicide mean that, all too often, suicide is seen as an inevitable consequence of a particular weakness inherent in the individual. We know that this isn’t the case. Frequently, our healthcare and social checks fail those clearly in need or asking for help. We believe that suicide is a serious health issue, and, more broadly, that mental health should be given the same emphasis as physical health.”

TASC came together as an initiative to encourage collaboration and prevent duplication of efforts and funding in the area of suicide research and prevention. It was set up in November 2010 and holds quarterly meetings to discuss common goals, current research and future actions. The aims of this group are:

  1. To share and provide information
  2. To collaborate on effective interventions
  3. To influence policy makers and the media.

You can read more about the TASC on their website.

 For now, let me share a few things that stood out for me in the meeting:

“The head and the heart must work together”

At either end of the meeting table were two individuals that, for me, really put this statement into perspective.

At one end of the table sat a gentleman who had lost his son to suicide, a bereaved father passionate about making real change to how those in crisis and in immediate danger of suicide are supported to live. I could feel his pain, frustration and absolute determination in every word he spoke, a mix of drive and emotion shown by many of those at the TASC meeting who have been touched by suicide.

At the other end of the table sat a representative from British Transport Police, an officer there to update us on the work being done at rail stations in particular to prevent suicides and care for all those impacted by suicide, from those at risk to their loved ones, as well as rail employees. This was, in part, quite similar to the work in Australia done by our friends at TrackSafe in partnership with R U OK?

The care and compassion with which she spoke was so impressive, as were the changes they have been making in the workplace to prevent suicide and support those impacted by suicide. One thing I thought was interesting was work to develop a Code of Conduct (very early days so no public draft available) for the British Transport Police to support families bereaved by suicide. I wasn’t aware that there were lengthy codes of conduct for victims of crimes to set out what members of the public can expect from the Police immediately following the incident and for months afterwards. Apparently there is not that level of detail for an incident relating to suicide. I will be interested to follow this piece of work and follow up with our colleagues in Australia to see what we have done in this area.

The reason I mention the two very different perspectives at the table is that it reinforced to me that as painful as it may sometimes be, we must have all of these voices at the table in suicide prevention. TASC has done a great job of doing just, linking those with lived experience to Government, NGOs and community action groups through this group and the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA). The NSPA objectives are very much aligned to Suicide Prevention Australia and the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention in terms of facilitating cross sector collaboration. I will follow this post with a more detailed report on time I spent with the Chairs and Secretariat of the NSPA as there are a number of specific lessons we can learn as well as share from an Australian perspective on that front.

As is the case in Australia, the voice of lived experience is strongly represented at most levels of Government, business and community. I was proud to share some of our work to amplify the voices of lived experience in suicide prevention at the TASC meeting. The group was particularly interested in the resources we developed to support members of our Lived Experience Network to assess their personal readiness to be involved as well as think about their own self care.


“Unless you reach the audience where they are, a lot of work can be wasted effort”

In terms of who TASC are engaging with and plan to engage with in the future, they believe they are seeing success in suicide prevention if they go where the audience is that they want to reach. Lessons from Comms101 that we often forget when designing new interventions, campaigns or programs! TASC want to see more work being done in specific industries and more focus on mental health and wellbeing in workplaces; with the view that this is how to reduce the number of people who reach suicical crisis.

With their sector partners, there are a number of innovative projects underway. For example, a number of TASC and NSPA members are actively involved in supporting and mentoring the Alliance for Student-Led Wellbeing, calling on the collective experience of organisations that aim to raise awareness about the importance of good mental health, reduce the stigma associated with anxiety and depression and provide practical help and emotional support to university and college students, working alongside campus and public services.
 Further, the group believes that education must start even younger with mental health being placed at the centre of their schools framework from those as young as five and upwards learning how to recognise their emotions and seek help when needed. In the meeting, TASC Co-Chair congratulated members in the room who talked us through their new, innovative education programs into schools, particularly primary schools but also asked that we all look to how we can take that a step further and influence the curriculum in order to affect sustainable change.

Given its suicide rates, the UK suicide prevention sector is also giving renewed priority to men and suicide prevention. They have had some success with campaign traction with national projects such as the #mandictionary campaign led by The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) but are committed to a real focus over the next 12 months on men's mental health and how to better engage men. As CALM CEO said in the meeting, “since 1981, suicide for women have halved; how do we model the conversation and the reaching out behaviours women have, in men?" While we should not take our eyes off concerning trends emerging for women and suicidal behaviour, in Australia we have very similar suicide rates for men and should work with our coleagues in the UK to seek out more effective ways to address this vulnerable population.

“I’m not a very good academic. I’m a doer and really just want to get resources out there to help people”

I very much appreciated this statement from Professor Christabel Owens (who will join us at the Australian National Suicide Prevention Conference in July as a guest speaker) part way through the TASC meeting. It echoes the thoughts of the Centre for Suicide Prevention (University of Manchester) team I spent time with last week in terms of making their research more accessible and able to be translated into practice. 

Christabel said this when introducing me to the Safe to Talk resources she has developd and is now making available on a wider scale in the UK. She also shared her thoughts and gathered feedback from the group on a follow up piece of research to help people respond to someone in crisis more effectively.

I directed the group to research and resources SPA member Hunter Institute of Mental Health have developed on having safe conversations in community about suicide, Conversations Matter. This is an area where Australia has really led the way. I look forward to connecting the two at the conference as I know they are both doers who are keen to refine the work they do to best help people on the frontline!

Other research being translated into practice is the growing instances of crisis care alternatives to presenting at Emergency Departments. In the UK there are a number of inspirational organisations doing just this in the form of Maytree, Pieta House and The Listening Place. At the meeting, Co-Chair Clare also gave an update on a new project called James' Place, a place inspired by the loss of her son and desire to give people in a similar situation to him (not necessarily known to the health system but reaching out for help) a safe place to talk through how they're feeling and access resources in a non clinical environment. I found these discussions very interesting as this model of care has been raised repeatedly in Australia over recent years. You may be interested to find out more about the work our colleagues at Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) have done with their Life Promotion Clinic.

“It feels like this is coming out of the shadows”

Finally, I loved hearing this statement about the level of mental health and wellbeing awareness in this the UK. Suicide Prevention Australia, its members and friends are passionate about speaking up about suicide and working to build more resilient communities that know how to give help and get help.

It is inspiring to see organisations and public figures in the UK walking the talk. This week has seen the formal launch of ‘Heads Together’, a campaign bringing together The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry in partnership with inspiring charities that are tackling stigma, raising awareness, and providing vital help for people with mental health challenges.

In the TASC meeting, there was also specific reference to the positive public engagement in Jonny Benjamin’s story (mental health and suicide prevention advocate) and subsequent documentary produced with TASC called “The Stranger on the Bridge”. This led to quite a bit of discussion around the table about human compassion and how engaged we are as individuals in what is going on around us and the mental state of others.

I have always been quite an empathetic person, but have noticed that I am almost hyper aware of people’s emotions and state of mind since we lost my aunt to suicide. This sentiment was shared by all of those in the room who have been touched by suicide. We would all ask that “stranger on the bridge” if they are ok. But would those who haven’t felt that pain do the same? How can we encourage each other to look up from their smart phones and laptops (she says typing on the train); and more importantly, how can we help people to feel confident to know what to do when someone says no.

In the UK, the TASC team has worked with the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) on a website called Support After Suicide, including a resource called Help is at Hand to help individuals and communities to become better informed; similar to our work on Communities Matter and the Australia website Support After Suicide. Perhaps these one stop shop resource hubs combined with public awareness campaigns can help us all to put that care into action at times when action is needed most. They are also now working on a support pathway for those who are bereaved with the framework soon to be available for the public and suicide prevention services alike.

My heartfelt thanks to Co-Chairs of TASC, Hamish Elvidge and Clare Milford-Haven for their kind invitation to the meeting and to the group for their insights and follow up introductions. I look forward to continuing the share lessons learned across the pond.

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"