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Breaking the taboo: why it’s okay to speak about suicide in Scotland

Professor Rory O'Connor of Glasgow University
Professor Rory O'Connor of Glasgow University

Ahead of a seminar he is giving at Dundee University, world-renowned psychologist Professor Rory O’Connor tells Michael Alexander why greater awareness is needed about suicide and how it can be prevented.

He is the world-leading expert in the psychology of suicide and self-harm who heads up Scotland’s renowned Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at Glasgow University.

But ahead of a suicide prevention talk he is giving at Dundee University on Monday October 2, Northern Ireland born Professor Rory O’Connor revealed he has experienced at close hand the devastating consequences of suicide and the difficulties that can arise in identifying those who might be most at risk.

“I’ve studied the subject for 24 years and had no direct experience of suicide initially,” said Professor O’Connor in an interview with The Courier.

“I’d always been interested in mental health and did my PhD on suicide.

“But sadly I’ve lost two important people in my life to suicide since.

“A very close friend killed herself and then the person who brought me into the field – my first mentor – he also killed himself in the last few years.”


Professor O’Connor said that in particular the death of his close friend was “absolutely devastating”.

“I felt I had let her and her family down given I’m this so called expert,” he added.

However, he said it also highlighted how really difficult it is to predict which individual is going to kill themselves even though experts may know which people are generally at risk.

Professor O’Connor will lead ‘Understanding suicidal behaviour’ – the first seminar of the Tayside Suicide Research Network’s 2017-18 programme.

It’s a timely talk with the Scottish Government launching consultation on its next suicide prevention strategy and the latest National Records of Scotland figures published a fortnight ago showing that for the first time in six years, suicide has risen in Scotland.

Data shows that 728 people died by suicide in 2016 – that’s 56 more deaths compared to 2015.

However, Professor O’Connor said the truth is the vast majority of suicides are preventable.

What’s needed, he said, is the right environment for people to thrive, talk about how they feel and to receive help when they need it.

“Obviously suicide is a major public health problem in Scotland, and, even though the suicide rates for the last 10 years in Scotland has been decreasing, it actually went up last year for the first time in a number of years,” he said.

“We need to focus on a better understanding of why the suicide rate is increasing and what we can do to make that less likely.

“What I’m going to be talking about is the work we have been doing to understand suicide, the complex factors that lead to suicide, and some of the work we have been doing in terms of brief interventions such as minimising the risk of self-harm which is one of the key risk factors.”

Professor O’Connor said 75% of all suicides in Scotland are by men – making it the single biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK – and it often happens, although not exclusively, within the context of disadvantage, unemployment, trauma and bereavement.


What experts in his field do is look at interplay between trauma, negative life events and disadvantage, and research how they can come together in a “perfect storm” for some people.

“For me people kill themselves when they feel trapped,” he added.

“Suicide is the only option for them. The big challenge regarding men is that we have to tackle the whole notion of roles – this whole macho image of men, the perception that it’s a sign of weakness to seek help.

“What we in Scotland have been trying to do for the last decade or more is challenge that stigma around mental health in general.

“But we are also trying to encourage men to seek help and reach out. Alcohol and drugs also come into it. Can we make it more likely that men who are vulnerable, who are feeling suicidal, actually get the support they require?

“Twenty years ago cancer was ‘the Big C’ that no one spoke about. That’s changed. Yet we still have that stigma around trauma and mental health.

“Even though there have been those big positive strides forward, suicide is still that taboo subject people don’t talk about. There’s still that shame. That’s something we need to change. That it’s ok to speak about it. It’s a myth that people shouldn’t be asked if they are feeling suicidal. The opposite is true because it forms a release for the person feeling that way.”


Dr Fhionna Moore, a senior lecturer in psychology at Dundee University, researches ways in which local environments shape rates of emotional distress and suicide.

She has worked with NHS 24 to model the ways in which these rates change over time and across Scotland depending upon levels of socioeconomic deprivation, the weather, the population density, and the ratio of men to women.

She said: “In my research group we are also working on looking at the relationship between the macho Scottish male stereotype and the elevated male suicide rate in Scotland – work by my PhD student Charlotte Starkey.

“The Tayside Suicide Research Network grew out of this research, and is a collection of over 100 academics and professionals who work with suicide in some capacity.

“We have members from many different academic disciplines from universities of Dundee, Abertay, Stirling, and St Andrews as well as representatives from, for example, Police Scotland, Fire Service, Social Work, the regional Suicide Prevention Coordinators, SAMH, Dundee Samaritans, and NHS Public Health, Nursing, and Psychology.

“We meet for monthly seminars and discussions and provide a forum for fostering collaborations in order to better understand and prevent suicide.”


Dr Moore is currently running a project called ‘Dundee and me: how the city shapes our moods’, in which she will be working with groups of school children and mental health service users to explore how the different environments of Dundee influence our emotional experiences.

“We will be exploring these creatively via art, creative writing, performance and computer art and putting on a performance and exhibition in April 2018,” she added.

“This is a collaboration with Eddie Small of Humanities here at Dundee University, Robin Sloan in Computer Arts at Abertay, and the Children’s University.”

*Understanding suicidal behaviour, by Professor Rory O’Connor takes place in the Scrymgeour Building, Dundee University, at 3pm on Monday October 2.