Interview: Career advice from Siobhan O’Neill

Professor Siobhan O’Neill. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

Siobhan O’Neill is a Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University. Her current research programmes focus on trauma and suicidal behaviour in Northern Ireland, novel interventions for mental health and suicidal behaviour. Siobhan has expertise in qualitative and quantitative (epidemiology and survey) research methods.

What are your main research interests?

I am really interested in why we have mental health problems and what we can do about them. My research focuses on suicidal behaviour, mental illness and trauma in Northern Ireland, and worldwide.

Can you briefly describe your career path?

My PhD wasn’t related to suicide research at all. I got a post managing a large study of mental illness in Northern Ireland, and developed an interest in mental health and mental illness as a result of this project. After that, I got a lectureship and was able to develop more studies in the area. The Northern Ireland Study of Health and Stress, that I coordinated, was part of the World Mental Health Survey Initiative. There were so many sections to that study, it meant I could write about and publish on many different areas of mental health. It happened to be around this time, that suicide rates were increasing and there was a section on suicidal behaviour in the survey. I started to analyse that and became more well known for analysing suicidal behaviour.

Please tell us about your career highlights and lowlights.

One highlight was the publication of a paper that I authored on suicidal behaviour in Northern Ireland and its link with trauma and the troubles. It was a highlight as it was the first time ever than the link had been shown. Up until that point, a lot of people suspected a link existed, but It was really important to me that we had data and evidence for that. This data meant that that we could do a lot of good work, and help a lot of people in Northern Ireland. One of the main highlights for me is when we have evidence that we can then use to support the need more funding for mental health. The amount of funding that is spent on mental health in Northern Ireland is only half that of other places. This has massive impact on how we are doing as a country. Anything I can do to improve things for the people of Northern Ireland is a highlight for me. Another highlight for me was when I was first asked to do media interviews. I was enormously honoured and I still love doing that. I love chatting about my research; trying to bring it to the public and helping people understand what the research evidence tells us. A recent highlight is having the opportunity to do a TED Talk in memory of a journalist (Lyra McKee) that I knew very well. She reported on my research and the links between suicide and mental health. She was tragically murdered, and I will be doing the talk in her memory.

There have been lots of low lights as well. There have been periods of conflict in the department and I have felt that my work was not valued or respected. This caused me a lot of pain. These times passed, but they were very difficult. There are all the other low lights too. You submit four or five grants at the start of your career and most are rejected. It takes a lot of time to learn how to write grants, learn who to work with, and learn how the game works. Even publishing papers – there are always rejections! Now, a rejection doesn’t even bother me at all, but at the start it was really difficult. When you have just finished your PhD, you are doing a lot of the writing, spending weeks getting to this point and then it gets rejected. It is really difficult, and in these situations, it is tricky to see the bigger picture. All you see is the time being squandered on this. You cannot allow your perception of yourself to be affected by rejections. Things will take shape, but it will take time to get there.

What advice would you give to early career researchers working in suicide and self-harm research?

Suicide is a difficult area to research. It is not easily measured and we are only starting out on the journey of understanding it. We are at the early stages, and there will be so many blind alleyways that we go up and down because we are not going to be able get the answers easily. But…we are here because we are passionate about this, so it is about remembering that passion! Even 20 years ago we didn’t have much to offer people who were suicidal, we have made progress and so just think about how much we can achieve in the future. It is difficult because even in other areas of mental health, the science has improved and the treatments are there.  We are only just starting to develop them for suicidal behaviour so it can feel like it is too difficult sometimes. Also, we are often dealing with people who have been in terrible situations, had terrible things done to them, had terrible experiences and are really ill. That can be really hard and overwhelming at times. Another important thing to bear in mind is that suicidal behaviour is normalised in our world. We know about contagion, but we sometimes think that we can put ourselves outside of that. As researchers, we can be influenced by contagion too. Once suicide becomes part of your world, it is an option. We need to watch out for that, and look out for each other. Researchers are always trying to be independent, but self-care and care of our peers is so important for us and for this area.

Advice for you give yourself on difficult days / key tips for getting through difficult times in academia? 

Experience has taught me that things that seem like big problems usually aren’t a few weeks later. Things do pass. Sometimes situations that you think “there is no way round this”, they resolve themselves with time. Know that it will pass. Please talk to your Professors, anyone that is senior, and that has been through similar situations. I have been there for people when they have thought there is just no way out of this and we have been able to find solutions to things. Don’t keep it to yourselves, do share it. A lot of us have experiences that we don’t talk about openly, we are all human and we have made mistakes. It helps to talk to someone about it, especially senior people that you can trust. Based on their experience, they will be able to help. It is scary but please talk.

I make sure that I do yoga every morning. 10 minutes on YouTube. It isn’t going to change the world or anything like that but it really helps to get away from your own ruminations. It doesn’t need to be yoga. It could be sport, it could be knitting, it could be anything really. Find something that works for you, which helps you and lets you be at distance from your own thoughts and observe them. Whatever it is you choose to do, find a way to distance yourself. Once you start to observe you own thoughts, everything changes. You become less invested in your thoughts; this promotes resilience, helps you avoid mental illness, and helps you cope with stress more effectively. Don’t underestimate the importance of looking after the physical stuff, and meeting your basic physical needs first. Have a drink of water, have a shower, eat something healthy, do some exercise and get an early night. Diet, physical activity and sleep are the trinity, and we often forget about that! We are so focused on mental health, that we sometimes we forget that physical self-care is so important to how we feel mentally. Also, ask for help, ask for help, always ask for help!

What do you look for from early career researchers / when hiring early career researchers?

It is all about the attitude for me. I can look at a CV and see that someone has published and all of that, but I just want to know that their attitude is right. They should have an attitude of problem solving, willingness to be flexible, take things on that are challenging, being able to ask for help and ask questions. If it is for a specific research project I also look for someone who can be managed, who will take management. Sometimes you see people and they are so convinced of their own goals. These goals are important but you want someone to be good for the project and to deliver something for you as well. I like to think that I help researchers develop themselves, but at the end of the day there is often a job that needs to be done and I need to know that they are going to be able to deliver that under my guidance. A certain amount of assertiveness, insight, someone who can tell me when they are under pressure and can communicate well is crucial too. It is all about attitude, and that comes across easily in an interview. I have taken on researchers who have not had as many publications as others that I have interviewed, but their attitude was right and that is crucial.

What’s essential to your well-being?

Spending time outside, getting some air, and moving your body is important. Yoga every day, and starting the day with yoga, is really essential to me. Sometimes my toddler is underneath me, and just the other day she threw a banana at my computer, so it is not always peaceful, but it’s just about moving your body.  Seeing friends for coffee, seeing my sisters, spending time with my child are all crucial to my well-being. Playing with my child is really important and connecting with people is totally vital. Spending free time with people that you love and care about is all that matters. That is all that is ever going to matter.

Interview and transcription by Kirsten Russell (@Kirsten_Russell) is PhD student within the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde (


*Featuring Photo by Ulster University (© Copyright 2019 Ulster University).

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