Spotlight on Contact: suicide prevention - what works?

18 Sep 2014 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Kevin Hines
Kevin Hines will speak at the conference

In the first of our series on events organised by the community and voluntary sector in NI, Scope takes a look at the issues on the table at Contact’s 2014 conference.

Northern Ireland has high rates of suicide and ill mental health. Deprivation, social isolation and the legacy of the Troubles are some of the factors that contribute to the local situation.

However, there is great work being carried out to help battle poor mental health, and assist those contemplating ending their own lives, including within the community and voluntary sector.

The issues

The causal link between the Troubles and Northern Ireland’s high suicide rate is well documented – but less well known is how the total deaths during our decades of conflict and the ongoing damage wrought year-on-year by suicide compare.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, nearly as many people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland as were killed during the entire decades-long conflict.

Figures published earlier this year show that 3,288 suicides were registered in NI between 1998 and 2012. This is also nearly double the number of people – 1,825 – who lost their lives in traffic collisions during the same period.

So, suicide is claiming lives twice as fast as road deaths or the Troubles, but does not generate the same level of public debate. Where is the outcry?

Speaking about the problem in his office, upstairs in an old mill in Tiger’s Bay, Contact Managing Director Fergus Cumiskey gives a nod to Reginald Maudling, then British Home Secretary, who said in December 1971 that the situation in Northern Ireland amounted to “an acceptable level of violence”.

Fergus said: “The prevailing attitude in healthcare used to be that if someone is intent on suicide then there is nothing that can be done to stop them.

"There was almost a shrug of the shoulders, as if to ask ‘what more could be done?’ It was as if there was fatalism, an acceptable level of suicide.

“That is not true. Thankfully opinions have moved on a bit – but the figures show we still have a huge issue, and that we are not dealing with it adequately. We now believe that every single incidence of suicide is preventable right up until the last moment of life.”

Fergus, who has battled against suicide for decades, says that every suicide death within the healthcare system represents a clinical failure – and he is not shy about shouldering some of that blame himself, maintaining that all parts of the health system that engage with people thinking about suicide could do better.

The fact that NI’s suicide rate doubled in the decade after the Good Friday agreement, coupled with stats showing incidences in the USA have dropped by around a third compared with 30 years ago, prove this matter should not be met with a shrug of the shoulders – suicide is preventable.

Contact’s conference will look at the drive to zero – the idea that suicide is a problem that can be eradicated, given the right provision – and Fergus has practical ideas about how NI can work towards this.

He argues that there are many people doing very good work to improve mental health but that communication between various agencies and social enterprises is inadequate – and that a binding Memorandum of Understanding between them is essential to consistently manage complex care, particularly at crisis point.

In March 2012 Contact published Safer Places at Times of Crisis, a white paper outlining its vision for improved suicide prevention. Over two years later little progress has been made on its various recommendations.

The conference

Suicide Prevention – What Works? will be held on 10th and 11th of November in Belfast’s Titanic Centre and hopes to provide world-class thought leadership and insight into a heartbreaking issue..

Since 2008, Contact has been provider of the 24/7 crisis helpline Lifeline 0808 808 8000, under license to the Public Health Agency.

The charity says its ongoing work and research in suicide prevention has helped it develop key contacts and networks – and lead to it securing high-profile speakers with powerful messages for its conference.

One of the key-note speakers is San Francisco native Kevin Hines, who came to prominence when his remarkable story of suicide attempt survival featured in the 2006 documentary, ‘The Bridge’.

When Kevin was 19 years old, two years after he was diagnosed as bi-polar, he tried to take his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now an award winning public speaker and author, he travels the world speaking about living well following mental illness and suicide attempt survival.

In 2012, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding work as a suicide prevention advocate and speaker.  His book Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt was released last year, and is already entering its thirteenth print run.

Contact has a history of attracting incredibly powerful speakers to its conference. In 2012, Barbara Swanston gave an impassioned speech about her work as a mental health and suicide prevention advocate, following the loss of her son Terry to suicide.



Contact has split its conference in two: the first day will raise the voice of mental health recovery; the second will explore themes of suicide-attempt survival, and moves towards near perfect depression care and driving suicide to zero in health care systems.

The group wants its conference to be of relevance to everyone from policy makers, political leaders, activists and health workers, to those bereaved and affected by suicide, and also journalists, those working in justice and policing, education, and the community and voluntary sector.

Other speakers at this year’s event include Dr Ed Coffey, an award-winning neuro-psychiatrist and CEO of Henry Ford Behavioral Health Services; Professor Jo Smith, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Early Intervention Clinical Development Lead with Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust; and Eduardo Vega, Executive Director for the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHASF) and US Senate honouree.


The 4th Contact Suicide Prevention – What Works? Conference will take place on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th November 2014 in Titanic Conference Centre, Belfast.

Pricing for two-day tickets:

Statutory bodies and private sector - £150

Community/voluntary Sector - £100

Student/ concession - £80

Conference dinner on Monday evening in The Bridge, Titanic Centre - £45. Tickets limited.

To register your interest in the conference – email [email protected]

For further info visit or @contactni 

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