“Three times as many people die by suicide, as in road traffic accidents.”
So begins a moving short film about the pioneering work of Dr Alys Cole-King and colleagues at ‘Connecting with People’ in the UK. Their purpose is direct: reduce the stigma of mental illness and give people simple skills so they can begin a safe and compassionate conversation with someone at risk of self-harm or suicide.
Alys is a modest and softly-spoken liaison psychiatrist and expert in suicide-prevention, living with her husband and children in a rural property in North Wales. It was her role as mother that compelled her to act. She describes her experience of standing on a stage before an audience of parents who had all lost children through suicide. From that day, she felt she had no choice. Out of deep compassion for the loss and suffering caused by suicide, she made it her mission to begin a national movement for suicide prevention. Underneath her soft exterior is a solid and unmovable determination, anchored much like the thick stone walls of her country cottage. With organisational development expert Gavin Peake-Jones, she founded Connecting with People:
Connecting with People is a not-for-profit organisation formed to develop and deliver training packages for a range of sectors, including healthcare, social care, statutory bodies and communities. Our modular training includes bite-size suicide awareness and prevention courses and we have also developed resources and training for young people, professionals and the wider community.
Our belief is that emotional distress, and tragically, suicide, still affects and takes far too many lives. We felt that responsibility for people with suicidal thoughts was seen to lie with specialist mental health services and others were more nervous to get involved. However we knew that early intervention from a colleague, friend, compassionate health provider or care giver could make a real difference to saving lives.
We have developed our training and resources to be as accessible as possible. We believe everyone has the capacity to help and that this can happen safely. We have developed our training and materials using the very latest research about what works. We are working in partnership with professional bodies, charities and other providers of suicide prevention training.
What’s so impressive about Alys’ work, is the way she has successfully partnered with other organisations to create national campaigns that are engaging thousands of people in positive change. She began with the U Can Cope campaign:
Together with Samaritans and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are leading a coalition of more than one hundred UK organisations – from mental health bodies to the Professional Cricketers’ Association and the Rugby Players’ Association – to spread the message that it is possible to overcome suicidal thoughts and feelings and that there are many resources available to help those who are struggling to cope. With our media partner, Southwick Media we produced this film ‘U can Cope’ which was released on World Suicide Prevention Day – September 10th 2012. Since its release, the film has been viewed over 24,000 times on this channel alone and has been shown at numerous international conferences.
This was followed by the World Suicide Prevention Day:
Tackling stigma saves lives. Suicidal thoughts are far more common than people realise but we just don’t talk about them. Stigma makes it embarrassing or frightening to tell another person, but this is absolutely critical to getting help.
Alys says, ‘Suicidal thoughts usually start because people feel overwhelmed by their problems or their situation. This can happen to absolutely anyone. People can find it hard to see a way out. It is not that they necessarily want their life to end: it is just that they cannot cope with their emotional or physical pain any more. We want to tackle stigma so people can feel free to access the support knowing that the person they approach will listen and not judge’.
He latest campaign is to engage supporters through the NHS Change Day. She’s asking health professionals to make a personal pledge: “I pledge to develop my wellbeing and emotional resilience & encourage those around me to do the same“.
Alys links this campaign to compassion in healthcare. As we know from the work of Paul Gilbert, one of the elements of compassion is the ability to tolerate distress. When empathetic health professionals see a patient suffering, they too feel the pain. If we don’t have the positivity and resilience to tolerate that distress in ourselves, we are not able to be fully present in compassionate support for the patient.
Compassionate care is best delivered by emotionally resilience carers with great personal wellbeing. People have different levels of resilience which can influence how they respond to life’s challenges. Wellbeing and resilience can enable someone to be better able to cope if life is tough so they can still enjoy a happy and meaningful life. Although cultural change is also needed to facilitate compassionate care in organisations, a carer with great wellbeing and who is resilient will find it easier to meet any challenges.
We salute Alys as one of our pioneering compassion heroes. Please follow the links and support her amazing work.