Last week Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of Haringey’s children’s services, spoke about how relentless hounding by the press had left her contemplating suicide. It’s uncomfortable hearing an individual talking about a time when they thought of taking their own life and it reminded me that it’s nearly 10 years since a friend of mine, a social worker, committed suicide. In that decade I’ve also known of another social worker, a service user and a family member who all took their own lives.
Suicides are preventable, insofar as we know what indicators there are in the lead up to a suicide attempt. These include giving away prized possessions, making a will and social withdrawal. We also know what can reduce the risk of people carrying out their suicidal thoughts, such as agreeing to remove the means with which they intend to kill themselves. But there is a stigma associated with suicide that prevents us from talking about it. This lack of communication hinders us from reaching out to others in distress.
Life is an added struggle in these recession-filled times, and social work is a particularly stressful job. At a time when social workers need backing, not knocking, the profession has taken a hammering in the national media. I think of my friend who took his life and the social worker’s lot: the burdensome caseloads, thankless tasks and a blame culture that make for an emotionally draining job. It’s not uncommon to feel very alone. The likelihood is that you are overstretched and so too are your colleagues, at a time when you ought to be able to offer peer support.
But it is not enough to leave the subject of suicide for the mental health professionals; most people who commit suicide have not been in touch with statutory mental health services (though it’s worth remembering a high proportion of those who commit suicide are service users).
Mental health awareness
Recently I’ve been doing some work on mental health training in my native Wales. I’ve been developing a mental health awareness programme for voluntary and statutory agencies for the Cardiff and Vale Mental Health Development Project. It’s particularly poignant as some of the area covered neighbours Bridgend, the area where a large cluster of suicides were reported last year.
My work has involved putting together a training programme that includes courses on suicide intervention. In particular, I made sure I involved Asist (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). This intensive two-day course helps people to recognise signs and reach out to people in mental distress. It gives them the confidence to know what to do when someone acknowledges that they are planning to take their own life.
Suicide prevention training
It’s worth considering why you went into the caring professions – to support people – and to think about what might help you do that. Suicide awareness was never part of the social work training I received, although I specialised in mental health. It’s such an important subject that everyone involved in social work should receive training on suicide intervention. Courses such as Asist train individuals in helping to prevent suicide.
You never know when it might come in useful. What could be more important than learning the skills and confidence to help save a life?
Mark Drinkwater is Community Care’s practice adviser