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World Suicide Prevention Day: the role of research

Posted on 12 September 2011 by Valdeep Gill, Research Director .
Tags: APMS, Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, suicide, stigma, taboos

Suicide arguably remains one of the last taboos. The stigma and myths attached to suicide - and mental illness more generally - can prevent people from telling others about how they feel and seeking help. World Suicide Prevention Day, held every year on the 10th of September, promotes a worldwide commitment to the prevention of suicides and the reduction of stigma.

After many years of decline, national statistics show an increase in the rate of suicides. In 2009, 3,330 people died through suicide in England, the highest number since 2001. A recent Government paper, Consultation on Preventing Suicide in England, highlights the important role research can play in identifying at risk groups and informing targeted support.

The paper focuses on analysis of mortality statistics, coroners’ records and self-harm data held by health services. These are without doubt all important data sources, but I wonder whether there is a voice missing here? Suicide prevention strategies could be further strengthened by conducting research with people who have experienced suicidal crisis, whether they sought help from formal services or not.

Our Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Study, conducted on behalf of the NHS Information Center, starts to build such an evidence base. We surveyed a representative sample of the population across England to find out if they had ever had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide:

    • 17% of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts at some point in their life


    • 6% reported that they had made an attempt to end their life at some point


    • 63% of men and 58% of women sought help following their last attempt


  • The most common sources of help were hospital/ specialist medical services, GPs and friends, family or neighbours.

Future research could go further, and help to support prevention strategies by asking suicide survivors key questions like: Are common sources of help properly equipped? How did they provide support? Did this support help?

Of course, as with any sensitive topic, there are important methodological considerations to take into account when asking people about suicidal thoughts. Work we’ve done on the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Study could inform the appropriate use of survey tools. For example, we asked people about their suicidal thoughts in a face-to-face interview and again in a self completion questionnaire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a higher proportion of people reported having suicidal thoughts in the questionnaire.

However suicide prevention is developed, we need to ensure the voice of survivors is heard and incorporated. We’d be interested to hear from anyone interested in pursuing this line of research, so please do get in touch by posting a comment on this blog or emailing me.

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