By James Jopling, Executive Director for Samaritans Scotland.
I must admit, I arrived at the 4th Suicide and Self-Harm Early and Mid-Career Researchers Forum in Glasgow with some trepidation.
Although I have worked for Samaritans for nearly four years, this was my first meaningful foray into the world of suicide and self-harm research. Many of you in the UK will know Samaritans as a charity that provides a 24-hour anonymous confidential listening service for people who are in crisis or distress. Last year in the UK and Ireland our volunteers spent over one million hours responding to calls for help. Every call, email and text is responded to by a volunteer and this has been the case for the last 60 years and more.
I am one of just two staff in Scotland, one of 150 across the UK, supporting the delivery of that service that provides critical support for people. Many of whom are experiencing suicidal ideation or have suicide plans when they contact us.
In addition, we increasingly play a role in wider efforts to reduce the number of deaths by suicide in the countries in which we work – the four distinct nations of the UK and Ireland. Some of that work is done through national partnerships with other organisations who have similar aims and some through influencing at a local and national level to ensure that suicide is the priority it deserves to be across health, justice, education and other portfolios of government.
Central to our ability to play that role is our insight and understanding of what the most important elements of suicide prevention activity are. And central to that is a proper understanding of the evidence base for the whole range of interventions that could be part of those prevention programmes.
As Prof Rory O’Connor stated at the Forum, recent MQ research into spend on mental health research in the UK showed that £9 was spent for every person affected by mental illness against £228 for every person affected by cancer. And within that mental health research spend, self-harm and suicide totals just 2.2%. When suicide kills more men under 50 than anything else in the UK, this just isn’t right. And we need to do more to make the case for increased research funding.
And that is one of the most important reasons I was so delighted and privileged to be in your company for those two days. The insights you early and mid-career researchers are discovering, whether they be about social prescribing for suicide bereavement support, prison staff views and opinions on discussing suicide, predicting future suicidal behaviours through machine learning or the myriad of other topics covered by your papers and those of your colleagues are critical in helping those of us at the front line of suicide prevention make the case for change.
And as you know more than almost anyone else, any one suicide can happen for any number of reasons pertinent to that individual at that moment in time. The anguish for friends, families and colleagues wondering what they could have done differently, why they didn’t know more runs deep and is long-lasting. It is through your work that we can hope to know more about some of these reasons. And it is your work that will help us understand some of the preventative actions necessary of health services, governments and the wider public to reduce the devastation caused by every death from suicide.
What also struck me about the Forum was the compassion and empathy every attendee had for each other – as well as for those with experience of suicide or self-harm that you need to work with to complete your studies. I used to work for a breast cancer research charity and attended similar events where dry, dense basic lab research would be presented. You’d sometimes be at risk of forgetting the cells you were hearing about had a connection to billions and billions more made up in human form. At no point in the two days of the Forum did I feel that humanity wasn’t at the very heart of what was driving your desire for knowledge.
Undoubtedly you have chosen a challenging career path. One that might not go as you’d planned at every turn. But please know that from the outside in, I couldn’t be more impressed at your commitment and dedication to all your work in this field.
Every day our volunteers take thousands of calls from people who feel they have nowhere else to turn and that for some, that their life is not worth living. It is your work that means that in the future some of those calls never have to be made. It is your work that underpins everything we need to do to save lives and change futures. Thank you.