World Suicide Prevention Day 2018

Next month is the five-year anniversary since my brilliant brother Daniel died by suicide.

**Trigger warning - this blog discusses suicide**

Dan’s life was cut short before he was 40 years old leaving behind his loving wife and two beautiful young sons. All preventable deaths are devastating. But suicide can shatter families and friends like nothing else I’ve seen.

I have gone onto understand that suicide is the biggest killer for all ages from 5-35 years old and the biggest killer of men under 50. It is without doubt the single biggest public health challenge on preventable deaths of our times. As a society, we need to bring together our brightest minds, our financial assets and the political will to see a sustained and significant reduction in deaths from suicide.

However, this blog is both about the signs of progress we are seeing and also a simple message about what you can do today, tomorrow and every day to help reduce the risk of suicide for you and your friends and family.

Here are some signs of hope:

Firstly, the latest statistics on suicide indicate that overall number of suicides in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are falling (6,213 people in 2017 vs 6639 in 2015). For men (who are still three times more likely to die by suicide), the suicide rate is at its lowest for 30 years. Female suicide rate is rising in some parts of the UK but falling in Scotland and Ireland. Rates since 1985 have been falling and we need to accelerate this trend.

Secondly, we were pleased last month that the Scottish Government heeded our call to establish a special body to look at tackling suicide and providing support to bereaved families (who are some of the most at risk themselves of suicide). Scotland is taking a lead and we will continue to push for England and Wales to do the same.

Lastly, there has been a little heralded but significant change in the law on suicide. The way coroners decide on the cause of death has changed. We had for a long time been concerned about an under-reporting of the true scale of deaths by suicide because of the way coroners were giving verdicts of accidental deaths when some may well in fact have been suicide. However, in a land mark high court ruling just last month, coronial law was changed so that now coroners can give a verdict of suicide ‘on the balance of probabilities’ instead of the previous higher evidence threshold of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Although this ruling is subject to an appeal, the law is a important step forward in the battle to see the true scale of the problem and marshal adequate resources to address it.

In previous blogs I have set out the evidence on the key societal steps needed to reduce suicide. But there is something simple and radical we can all do to help reduce suicides. Our own research into stress showed that 32% of people had experienced suicidal thoughts at some point. And as Horizon's brilliant film on suicide showed, the evidence is building that simply asking our friends and family if they have had suicidal thoughts over the past few weeks is the single most effective thing we can do. Despite fears that raising the subject of suicide could put ideas in people’s head, the evidence points to the reverse; it lowers the risk. For people experiencing isolation, knowing that someone cares enough to ask can be the difference between life and death.

I have tried this. When I meet with friends, I have been asking them ‘Have you experienced suicidal thoughts’? It has opened up a deeper conversation and communicated that I really do care. If people do tell me they are struggling, I try to follow our own advice to assure them that this is a common feeling and give hope that with time, things change. I am also ready to encourage them to seek expert if they aren’t coping.

If asking about suicidal thoughts became a normal part of our cultural exchanges and practice (like putting on a seatbelt) I think hundreds if not thousands of lives would be saved.

You can be at the cultural cutting edge of suicide prevention by simply asking a compassionate question. Let’s make the difference together!