I'm alone in a hotel room ahead of a suicide prevention conference that I'm speaking at tomorrow. I'm meant to be reading through my lecture notes, but I'm not because I can't stop thinking about a conversation I had last week.
It was a conversation about a piece of research. Doesn't sound too memorable, right? Except, it was a conversation with a man whose research could have a transformative effect on children like mine and has implications for all of us doing as much as we can in suicide prevention.
A week ago I'd told Professor Louis Appleby that I'd like to write a blog here about the research that he's carried out with his team. We agreed a time to speak and as usual I had about 10 other things on the go when I took the call from Louis. I pulled the car over, grabbed a pen and started taking notes.
For the first time, Prof. Appleby and his team have attempted to take a holistic look at the experiences of the 145 young people under 20-years-old who took their lives in England in the 15 months from 1st January 2014. Rather than simply taking a reductive view of these individual experiences, the team revisited information given to the Coroner in each case, taking an in-depth, rigorous perspective. Carrying out the research in this way not only gives a fuller, narrative view of the circumstances and factors surrounding each individual, but also means that as the information has already been submitted, those testimonies thought to be significant by the Coroner didn't have to be revisited.
The findings, published recently, show that only a third of those young people who took their lives were linked into mental health services - a picture which is mirrored in the adult population. Almost half of those who took their lives had no contact with any service, whether mental health, social care or youth justice.
This throws up questions about our mental health services, but it also changes how we think about young people as not seeking help... or are they? Are services simply not available or are the access thresholds so high now that these young people couldn't get the help even if they wanted it? I haven't got the answers, but I do have plenty of questions. In the next phase of the report, some of these questions will be addressed.
Looking at the research findings feels personal. Both of my boys are healthy and happy and comfortable in their own skin. Yes, that might change. It's a constant worry that it will, which is why when it comes to the research statistics which highlight how many of the young people who took their lives had themselves been bereaved by suicide, it stops me in my tracks. The study found that 28% of the young people who died had been bereaved and in 13% of cases there had been a suicide by a family member or friend. Now it really is personal. As many reading this will know, my children were 3 and 13 years old when their Dad took his life. The legacy of his death and its effect on my boys is a subject that's never far from my mind. In the experiences included in the research, the bereavement reported was significant enough to have been included in the original coroner's report, which means that the loss was significant to the young person.
I asked Prof Appleby about the challenges that this type of research - the Psychological Autopsy (we decide we both really dislike this phrase) presents. As he's done continuously, the research presents each individual as just that... the people and experiences behind the statistics. Yes, the numbers are there, but the study always comes back to the narrative around the experiences of those young people. He acknowledges that whilst this research is a counterpoint to more conventional academic research, the work still has to be academically robust to be taken seriously, striking a balance between accuracy and richness, between data and daily experiences of those included.
Knowledge can be a tricky thing. There's a lot to take in. The implications for those of us that have young people in our lives whose experiences we can see mirrored in this research, will be understandably concerned. But, knowledge can also be powerful thing too. In the right hands it can transform and shape the future services available to our young people. As Prof. Appleby says, this research can make us aware, help us to be more supportive and keep us vigilant - a heightened state of sensitivity that I think we can all aspire to for the sake of our young people.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)