A series of portraits, each over six-foot tall, smile down at passers by on London’s South Bank, alongside the River Thames.
The images are part of a new exhibition, The Last Photo, created by the suicide prevention charity the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), to show the many faces of suicide.
Tragically, 125 people currently die by suicide every week in the UK, yet 61% of people say they would struggle to tell if someone they knew felt suicidal. The poignant outdoor gallery displays photos taken in the last days of 50 people’s lives.
One of the faces featured is that of Rob Bell, the late husband of author and journalist Poorna Bell. Rob died by suicide in 2015 at the age of 39.
The photograph, taken by Poorna, shows Rob waiting for a train after a James Taylor gig, a few months before he died. “He couldn’t stop smiling, humming Something In The Way She Moves,” Poorna recalls. Seeing her husband’s 6.5ft high portrait on the Southbank brought up “a big mix of emotions”.
“Seeing his photo underneath the summer sky was incredibly hard, when you consider the reason he’s there, and the 49 other people who feature in the exhibition. But it was also very beautiful, and poignant,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“Suicide is a death that can overshadow what we remember about a person’s life, and seeing his smiling face, and remembering the moment I took that photo brought a lot of good memories back, as well as the sad.”
The exhibition has launched alongside research conducted by YouGov for Calm, uncovering new insights into the public’s understanding of suicide.
Only a quarter (24%) of people think that someone experiencing suicidal thoughts would also smile and joke and just 22% of those polled thought they would share happy photos on social media. The reality is that suicidal
behaviour takes many forms, with many who are struggling putting on a mask to disguise their inner turmoil.
Despite progress made over recent years, stigma, fear, and a lack of understanding of how to help is preventing conversations that could save lives.
A third (33%) of respondents say they would feel too awkward to ask if someone was feeling suicidal in case they misread the situation. While over half (51%) don’t feel confident in knowing how to help someone if they shared they were experiencing suicidal thoughts.
The aim of the exhibition is to get people talking and eradicate some of those misconceptions.
Simon Gunning, CEO of Calm, says: “People tend to think they already know what suicidal looks like – reclusiveness, crying, silence etc – and if they don’t see these traits in someone they’re worried about, they hesitate to intervene. In reality, suicidal behaviour takes many forms.
“People struggling can put on a mask concealing their inner turmoil before taking their own lives. Calm’s aim is to highlight this fact and equip people to take collective action.
“If we can all start one conversation with our friends and family about suicide, together we can smash the stigma that surrounds it. If you don’t know what to say, or what to do if someone tells you they are struggling, then Calm has the resources to help. It might feel awkward to start with, but by starting a conversation today you really could help save a life.”
Poorna Bell hopes the campaign helps people to realise that suicide is something that can affect anyone, and any family.
“The photos capture that in such a powerful way. All genders, all ages,” she says. “I also hope they understand that suicidal people often don’t look suicidal, and so while prevention is about many things from what we prize as a society to providing adequate healthcare, it’s also is about arming ourselves with information about what signs to look out for. ”
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- 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).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.