I attended a mini conference on suicide prevention at Blackburn Town Hall yesterday. There were representatives from a range of health and social services. I was there with a couple of colleagues from Blackburn College. I noticed that my old employer, The National Probation Service, was missing, which was a shame given that the workshop I attended was on reducing the risk of suicide within the criminal justice system.
The aim of the event was to consider how Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and our own organisations might respond to The National Suicide Strategy. In workshops we discussed how we could work together to reduce the number of suicides in our town and the dreadful impact that each of those has on our community.
The first speaker was Chief Superintendent Bob Eastwood, Lancashire Constabulary Divisional Commander responsible for policing in East Lancashire. He spoke movingly about a colleague who had committed suicide and the impact of their death on family, friends and colleagues. It was pretty clear that Chief Superintendent Eastwood had been deeply affected by this and by the numerous incidents he'd attended at which someone had taken their own life. The impact of suicide ripples out across society. The other startling point made by Mr Eastwood was that sometimes all of his on-duty officers are engaged looking for or attending to suicidal people. He explained that suicide is traumatic and preventing suicide has significant resource implications for his organisation.
The next speaker was Emma Thompson, the Borough's population health analyst. She gave a presentation on suicide as a global, national and local problem. In Blackburn with Darwen there were 18 suicides across the Borough in 2010 - thirteen of those were male and five were female. On examining the figures for suicide in Blackburn over the last ten years a number of features emerge. She said that most were under the age of 45, 75% were male, 27% were single, 34% lived alone and 70% could be defined as 'white British'.
In the workshop I attended on suicide and the criminal justice system it became clear that the police are struggling to cope with their role as first responders. Often their appearance exacerbates the situation. A Chief Inspector said his officers really struggled with non-statutory offenders specifically and with distressed and suicidal people in general. He said there was a pressing need for speedy assessment and for a referral pathway. We thought there was a place for volunteers in supporting suicidal people, but the work would be complex and challenging.
Living Works talked to us about the suicide prevention training they offered. They offered three major programmes:
- suicideTalk - awareness raising, one or two hours duration, groups of 30 to 50
- safeTalk - a step up from suicideTalk, a programme designed to give people the confidence to talk about suicide with people at risk.
- ASIST ... a two day course involving role play, designed to give people the skills to work with suicidal people based on the principles of connecting, understanding and assisting.
The aim of Living Works is to create a network of helpers in the community. They said 'help seeking' is encouraged by open, honest and direct talk about suicide. They also said that the relationship between the helper and the suicidal person is key! The presentation ended on a positive note: 'No matter how despairing someone feels there is always a reason to live'.
The final speaker was Shirley Goodhew, Public Health Development Manager for NHS Blackburn with Darwen, speaking about risk factors for suicide: job loss, debt, social isolation, bereavement (especially for older people), family breakdown and imprisonment. Clearly a key risk factor for suicide was LOSS in its many forms. She said stigma and bullying are aggravating factors.
I left the conference feeling that agencies in the Borough had a long way to go if they were ever to work together effectively to safe-guard those at risk of suicide; but I left feeling that I had a part to play and I intend to book myself onto a Living Works training programme as soon as possible because, as the Chief Inspector said, 'Every life matters'.