Starting a national conversation about suicide

Professor Rory O'Connor (University of Glasgow) talks about his involvement in the BBC1 programme 'Life after suicide'.

I am proud to have played a small role in the BBC1 documentary, Life After Suicide, which aired on Tuesday night. It was a powerful programme, tackling an important topic. The bravery of those bereaved by suicide who shared their loss was poignant and heartbreaking, but vital. Angela Samata, the presenter, lost her partner Mark to suicide 11 years ago. The programme tracked her journey across the country meeting others who have been similarly bereaved, as Angela attempts to understand why people die by suicide, to challenge the stigma around suicide and to explore the impact of suicide on those left behind. She was simply outstanding; sensitively navigating the viewer through the lives of those so deeply affected by suicide as well as telling us her own very moving story.  

My involvement with the programme began some 14 months earlier, following an e-mail from a BBC producer who was researching a potential programme which she described as ‘a sensitive and thought-provoking documentary about suicide’.  I was impressed by her knowledge of the topic (and that she had read some of my work!) and her awareness of the unique challenges inherent in producing such a film – so I agreed to help. More than a year later, after numerous telephone and Skype calls, a meeting in London with the director and producer and a day’s filming in Glasgow, the day of transmission had arrived. Angela and I were in Salford the night before the broadcast as we were appearing on BBC Breakfast and on 5 Live radio the following morning to discuss the film. That evening, we talked about how important we thought the film was, how we hoped it would start a national conversation about suicide, about its complex causes and the devastating effect it has on loved ones – but we were also apprehensive, hoping, but not knowing how it would be received. 

Although my main contribution to the programme was professional (providing background information on suicide, talking about my research into the psychology of suicidal behaviour and helping Angela understand why people take their own lives), during filming I was asked about my own personal experience of bereavement by suicide.  I found this really difficult and I was initially reluctant to do so but I was persuaded by the director to talk about it – and I am pleased that I did and that a small piece of this conversation was included in the programme. For me, it has always been much easier to talk about the effect of suicide on others, being the so-called ‘expert’, rather than to talk about its effect on me.

However, the most difficult part about working on the programme came last weekend, on Friday, when I unexpectedly received a preview copy of the final cut. It was difficult because Friday is the birthday of a very close friend of mine who took her own life six years ago. I was devastated by her death and it has affected me much more than I like to admit (together with the death, almost four years ago, of the man who got me involved in suicide research 20 years ago in Belfast). This coincidence was particularly poignant, especially as it was the impact of her death that I had mentioned in the documentary. It’s remarkable how these coincidences happen.

Despite the programme being first broadcast late on Tuesday (10.45pm in England) and even later in Scotland (11.40pm), the response during transmission was really positive: #LifeAfterSuicide was the top trending hashtag in the UK on Tuesday night and the feedback from social, radio and print media since has been overwhelmingly positive (with many people wishing that the BBC had broadcast it in prime time). The programme seemed to resonate with large numbers of people, both those directly affected by suicide and those with no experience.

For my part, I found working with the BBC on this project really rewarding – sensitively handled from start to finish – and I would encourage others to do so should they get the opportunity. I also hope that the programme has kick-started a debate around suicide and is another small step in ensuring that suicide research and prevention are prioritised. We need to do so much more to tackle the 6,000 deaths by suicide in the UK each year and I would urge men, in particular, to talk to loved ones about how they’re feeling; it is not a sign of weakness to reach out. If you missed the initial broadcast, Life After Suicide is available to watch now on the BBC iPlayer.

If you are affected by suicide or you are worried about someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 08457 90 90 90 (UK).  They are also available by email [email protected]

Professor Rory O’Connor, University of Glasgow

- Further reading from The Psychologist archive: Professor O'Connor on suicidal behaviour (with the late Noel Sheehy), on responsible reporting of suicide, and an interview with him. Also, 'Psychologist suicide: Practising what we preach'.

 

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