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Things I Now Know: Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor is an MQ-funded researcher who leads the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at Glasgow University. He's been conducting research into suicide and self-harm for over 20 years, and is currently investigating if a new US technique could help to reduce risk of suicide in the UK – filling a critical gap in mental health support. 

As part of this new series, we spoke to Rory about things in life he's learned, his influences and his inspirations...

I am one of five boys and an identical mirror-twin. My twin brother, Daryl, also happens to be a Professor of Psychology at Leeds University. When we were growing up, our mother instilled in us a strong work ethic - we were peeling potatoes and cleaning out the fire before we were 10! She is an incredible inspiration - she taught us the importance of treating everyone equally, irrespective of who they are. As well as bringing up 5 boys, she worked full-time and was a trail-blazer in her work, fighting for and winning a gender-equality pay claim back in the 1990s!

My father’s death when I was 23 has had a long lasting effect on me. He died suddenly of a heart attack aged 51, while cutting the hedge. Although I’ve always been a pretty driven person, this unexpected loss definitely intensified my drive to seize every single day and get the most out of my life. Since then, and still now, I have a fear of dying young and want to cram in as much as possible. Carpe Diem indeed!

Looking back, I’d tell my younger self to celebrate success more and not be afraid of failure. Given that, more often than not, rejection and failure are the order of the day in academic life, it is vitally important that we celebrate successes when they come our way. Also, it’s healthy to share our rejections openly with colleagues.

I worry too much about what others think of me. I am a classic social perfectionist, which coincidentally I’ve been studying for years. But now in my 40s, I’ve learned to be more self-accepting -  that it’s okay to be wrong and to rely on others. To misquote John Donne: there is no need to be an island.

10 years ago I lost a close, close friend to suicide. It was my first personal encounter with suicide. I was devastated, and all these years later, I still think of her daily. For a long time, I felt that I had let her down. Her death has changed me as a person, but I hope for the better. Initially I didn’t know whether I could continue working in the field of suicide research, but I am glad that I did. I am even more passionate now about suicide prevention than when I first started out in the field 20 years ago.

It amazes me how little we still know about suicide in men. Although three quarters of all suicides in the UK are by men, and suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 50, we still know comparatively little about which interventions or components of interventions are effective to prevent their deaths. We need to prioritise the development of novel interventions, tailored specifically for men. 

I find it really concerning that there's 22 times more funding for each person affected by cancer than for each person affected by mental health problems. And there’s even less funding for suicide research. Obviously it is vitally important that we fund cancer research, but suicide research has been acutely and chronically overlooked. This has to change.

Day-to-day, I often find it difficult to unwind and relax. Playing tennis is probably the one place where I become so focused on trying to win a point that other distractions are silenced. Podcasts are pretty good as well- the inimitable Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time is a particular favourite. I tweeted the programme a while ago, suggesting suicide as a discussion topic…but I am still awaiting their reply. Self-care is so important, and definitely something I continue to work on.

None of us has all of the answers in suicide research and prevention. We will only advance the prediction and prevention of suicide by working collaboratively together. We all have a role in suicide prevention - scientists, clinicians, those with lived experience and policy-makers alike. We are all experts and this synergy will help us to succeed.

Last updated: 12 September 2018

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