September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. A day when organisations and communities across the world seek to raise awareness of how we can work together to ensure that fewer people die by suicide. HEE seeks that same goal and I’m pleased that Wendy has asked me to ‘guest’ this week’s stakeholder message whilst she is on leave.
I am conscious that this is a sensitive issue and for some of you this may be a raw one. This will not be the most cheerful article that I have written, but it may be the most important!
All of us will know of someone that has died by suicide and this could be a close family member or friend. I sadly have encountered the death of a friend and of patients too. When we held the hearings of the NHS Staff and Learners Mental Wellbeing Commission we heard from families and colleagues bereaved by suicide. So many painful and tragic stories were generously shared. I hope that you find this message supportive and that it does not open wounds for you.
At HEE, we have advocated for wellbeing across the NHS, including through our work to Enhance Junior Doctors’ Working Lives, the Reducing Pre-registration Attrition and Improving Retention (RePAIR) programme, our reform programmes and the NHS Staff and Learner’s Mental Wellbeing Commission. Much of this is now enshrined in the NHS People Plan and in the many resources offered to staff in the response to COVID-19.
We will continue to support wider efforts including those of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance, which is co-chaired by our friends at the Samaritans and the NHS Zero Suicide Alliance. The Zero Suicide Alliance is a collaboration of National Health Service Trusts, charities, businesses and individuals who are all committed to suicide prevention in the UK and beyond. This sets the goal of zero suicides. Some challenge if this is achievable but if the target is not zero, what target is acceptable? I believe that we all can and must work together to prevent death by suicide.
I hope that you have noticed the language I use. Many people still refer to ‘committing suicide’. I learned from the families we met during the commission that they find this really upsetting. Suicide is not a crime, it is an awful tragedy, and the pain and loss need to be respected. It is hard to change language habits, but it is kinder and more accurate to refer to ‘death by suicide’ and ‘bereavement by suicide’. Those affected will appreciate you changing the words used.
I cannot write about suicide without recognising, not least in these troubling times, that a colleague reading this message may be considering death by suicide. I hope not, but if you are please can I implore you to talk to someone, a friend or colleague, people who care, your General Practice or the Samaritans. The Samaritans offer an amazing free, confidential and non-judgemental service via telephone on 116 123. (I encourage everyone to add the number to the phone now!), by email (email@example.com), online (www.samaritans.org), on their app or even by writing to them.
There are also additional services for NHS staff including The NHS Staff Support Line on 0800 06 96 222 and ‘Our Frontline’.
I would like to highlight two risk factors that are particularly known to signal increased risk. These are a recent attempt or being in a close relationship with someone that has died by suicide. This could be a partner, sibling or child but could also be a work colleague. If either risk factor applies, it is even more important that you seek help as soon as possible.
Good research evidence shows that people who feel desolate and hopeless are helped not to attempt suicide by someone showing interest, often referred to as ‘one act of kindness’. Please don’t put off until tomorrow the kindness you can show today. It may just be the kindness that saves a life.
Suicide is preventable, you, our NHS People matter to us, and you matter to your colleagues. Let us ensure that at all times the NHS is a caring workplace; even when we are separated by COVID-19, we can still care.
Professor Simon Gregory
Deputy Medical Director and Freedom to Speak up Guardian
Health Education England