Over the past decade, family members and friends exposed to suicide have shown courage and determined leadership in efforts to prevent further deaths. This is demonstrated by their successful calls for a suicide prevention strategy ‘Protect Life’’ campaigning for a 24 hours helpline service, changes in appointment systems at A&Es such as the ‘card before you leave’ appointment system and the inclusion of information on mental health services in the government’s Choose Well public information campaign to name but some.
Since 2006, Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) has supported families bereaved by suicide, mental health service users and carers to lead innovative human rights campaigns to make improvements to the services they receive. In 2014, they won the Steve Pittam social justice award for their campaigning work.
Bereaved family members more recently have also taken the lead in highlighting that access to information and support following bereavement is not always timely and indeed many families are missing out altogether. This is very worrying as this group is especially vulnerable themselves as the following health research shows:
‘Family and friends of someone who takes their own lives are up to 3 times more at risk of taking their lives and to experience severe effects on their health, quality of life, ability to function well at work and in their personal lives ' Read more here
Measures to improve access to support and information in a timely manner is therefore a key component of any suicide strategy.
Family members highlighted problems accessing support at the launch of their new campaign ‘S.A.F.E.R.’ (Support Automatically For Everyone Referred) with the support of human rights organisation Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR). Since 2011 a new system has been in place to connect families into support systems, for example, post bereavement and suicide prevention organisations and, according to family member, this system can be very effective. The Sudden Death (SD1) Notification system is utilised by the PSNI to inform the Public Health Agency and Health Trusts of suicides and requests by family members for support. Unfortunately, this system has its flaws, For example, if someone dies in hospital following a suicide attempt there is no process for linking these bereaved families into support systems, thus many families are missing out.
Another issue identified, and confirmed through a Freedom of Information request, in the SD1 process is that in Belfast Trust area only 50% of families are taking up the offer of support. In focus groups families identified the timing of the police officer asking for consent to pass their details to support groups as an issue. Families often felt they did not know what they wanted or needed at this time due to the traumatic nature of their loss. Furthermore, some family members raised concerns that the police did not know the nature of the support being offered and were anxious about statutory organisations like social services perhaps being involved. Delays in the police passing the relevant forms to support organisations were also identified. An East Belfast support group found that only 3 out of 12 individuals who did request support were contacted within the time specified in the guidelines of 48 hours. A number were not contacted for up to 2 weeks.
The SAFER Campaign offers simple solutions to potentially overcome the issues highlighted:-
- An automatic referral for support through the Sudden Death (SD) process. An automatic referral policy already exists with Victim Support and so the principles (and solutions to obstacles such as data protection) could be applied here. Briefly then, an ‘opt out’ system as opposed to the present ‘opt in’ one.
- A newly formulated referral process comparable to an automatic SD referral process for death in hospital following admission following a suicide attempt.
- A long term goal of automatic referral to coroner’s office for bereavement support. A similar model works successfully in New South Wales, Australia.