In 2019, there were almost 6,000 deaths by suicide in the UK. It’s the leading course of death for young men in the UK – but there’s still a huge stigma attached to talking about the issue that has caused pain to so many people.

At MQ, we believe that research is the best way forward to reduce suicide. Once we know more about how and why suicide happens, we can also research the best ways to prevent it.

We’ve funded several research projects to try and do this. Read on to find out more.

We know that at least 16% of adolescents think about suicide, and 8% go on to make an attempt. But right now, we don’t know what specific factors put adolescents at risk.

To help prevent suicide, it is critical to identify the connections in the brain and the social and psychological factors that place adolescents at increased risk. The HOPES project combines large neuroimaging datasets to identify brain alterations that are associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviours in adolescence. It will then investigate how recent stress and stress in childhood interact with these brain alterations. The aim is to build a model that can predict which young people are at risk of suicide.

Data analysis might seem like a dry way to approach this highly emotive topic, but we know that by using the power of data we can find out what actually works.

Ultimately, this aims to give those working with young people the tools to powerfully predict individuals at highest risk of suicide, so they can be reached for timely intervention and suicide prevention.

First funded by us in 2017, this project is still ongoing.

Find out more:

Nearly one in ten young people self-harm or think about suicide. This is particularly worrying as we know that self-harm and suicidal thoughts are the biggest risk factors for someone attempting to take their own life..

If we were able to identify warning signs in schools, we would have the opportunity to create targeted interventions to prevent children and young people from attempting suicide.

To do this, Dr Rina Dutta and her team are linking data from schools with mental health data – providing a unique insight that will be able to determine if factors in schools can predict suicidal behaviours. This is another data science project that proves the importance of data analysis in preventing mental illness.

Preventing repeated suicide attempts

Professor Rory O’Connor from Glasgow University has been conducting research into suicide and self-harm for over 20 years. In 2019 he completed an MQ-funded project that supported people who have experienced suicidal feelings.

Rory’s project was trialling a US concept of ‘Safety Intervention Planning with Follow up Telephone Contact (SAFE TEL)’ which aims to reduce suicide attempts, for use in the UK. This is an exciting project which takes work developed with US veterans and looks at whether it can be adapted to fill this urgent need in the UK.

The safety plan is a prioritised list – written in the patient’s own words – identifying warning signs, coping strategies and supporting mechanisms when feeling suicidal. The list, written in the hospital when the person who has suicidal feelings, aims to increase their sense of self-control over suicidal urges and thoughts. This is backed up by weekly follow-up telephone sessions with the person after they are discharged.

At the moment hospitals have no evidence-based effective treatments to reduce the risk of suicide. This intervention aims to fill that gap. It has been tested in a three-phase feasibility study across four NHS Glasgow and Lothian hospitals, and the next step is to conduct a fully randomised controlled trial across different UK sites.

Research can help us understand suicide and other mental illness

Suicide is clearly something that causes huge distress and pain across the world. Despite extraordinary advances in treating physical health conditions, progress in understanding mental illness, and research into its causes, treatments and prevention, is nowhere near equal. In fact it falls woefully short, leaving millions of people worldwide without the help and support they need. At MQ, we believe that research is the answer to help us tackle this problem.


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