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Q&A with Professor Rory O'Connor

Suicide is the leading cause of death in young men in the UK. More than 6,000 people die by suicide each year, but how much do we really know about the reasons why, or the possible preventative measures that could be taken?

Despite growing public awareness of this important issue, we lack vital knowledge about suicide. As today is World Suicide Prevention Day, we’re speaking to leading researcher Professor Rory O’Connor, who is putting theory into practice to begin getting some answers.

In an MQ-funded project in Glasgow University, Rory is investigating whether a programme of support developed in the US (called SAFE TEL) can be adapted for use in the UK. The programme helps people to write a safety plan in hospital, identifying warning signs to look for and ways to respond to suicidal thoughts. Follow-up help is then given over the phone to help people stay safe and find effective support. Rory and his team will follow a three-part process to increase the size of the trial as they progress.  

What got you into suicide research?

I got into suicide research serendipitously.  Although I had planned to do a PhD on the mechanisms underpinning hopelessness (in the context of depression), the person who would go on to become my PhD supervisor asked me (out of the blue one day in 1994) whether I was interested in doing a PhD on prison suicide – as there was a funding opportunity.  This opportunity never materialized but in the meantime I became hooked and there began 22 years (and counting) of work in the field of suicide research and prevention.

Have you always wanted work in suicide research?

Although I didn’t set out to do suicide research, it was a logical next step for me; building on my undergraduate work on hopelessness. I have always been extremely passionate about my work but this was sadly reinforced a few years ago by the loss to suicide of two important people in my life. I was devastated by these losses, and remain deeply affected – and even more driven to work in this area.

What made you consider this specific area with SAFE TEL?

SAFE TEL focusses on safety planning, something which is often included in crisis interventions. Although there has never been a randomized trial of the effectiveness of safety planning in reducing suicidal behaviour. Having said that, there is really promising research (led by our US collaborators Barbara Stanley and Greg Brown) with US veterans. So, with this project, we wish to investigate whether we can tailor the US veterans’ version of safety planning to the UK emergency medicine context.

What do you hope your research can achieve?

From our previous research, we know that about 25-30% of people who attempt suicide will make another suicide attempt within the next 6 months. So ultimately, we are investigating whether the SAFE TEL intervention could contribute to a reduction in repetition. In the next two years, therefore, we hope to determine whether SAFE TEL is feasible for use in the UK and to gather evidence to support a large scale randomized clinical trial.

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered? 

The biggest challenge is always to secure funding for the research. There is precious little funding for mental health research and an even smaller slice of the funding pie goes to suicide research. It is great that MQ is funding research in this area especially early phase research that is grounded in theory; thereby giving us a much better chance of success. 

There is still such a stigma surrounding suicide; suicide remains the Big S, with people reluctant to talk about it.  Although there have been encouraging advances in terms of stigma reduction in recent decades, we still have a long way to go! 

Why do we need more research into mental health? 

First, and foremost, we have a duty to do everything within our power to alleviate suicidal suffering. There also needs to be parity of esteem with physical illness. The difference in funding for research into physical versus mental ill-health is vast. We need to invest, invest, invest in basic and applied mental health science.

Why should the public support mental health research?

804,000 people die by suicide each year across the world, and although it is difficult to estimate, millions more attempt suicide and millions more still are directly affected by the death of a loved one. There is still such a dearth of evidence in terms of what works to prevent suicide; there are so many gaps in our knowledge. We need to address these gaps as a matter of urgency.  Suicide prevention should be a national priority.

Last updated: 10 September 2016

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