Suicide Cultures

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In 2020, Public Health Scotland reported there were 805 probable suicides registered in Scotland. In comparison to England and Wales, Scotland has repeatedly reported a higher number over the past few years, but the reasons for this aren’t yet fully understood.

Suicide Prevention Day on Friday 10 September prompted us to remember that there are those that might be struggling and ask how we can help them, not only now but all year round.

Amy Chandler is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health in Social Science. She is also Principal Investigator of Suicide Cultures, a project looking to explore what suicide means to a wide range of communities across Scotland. The project looks to examine and change how we understand these high numbers of suicides in Scotland, and hopefully, help to prevent them. “However it is understood, suicide can often be troubling, compelling, difficult and frequently has far reaching impacts on individuals, communities and wider society,” says Amy.

A different perspective

Rather than being a psychologist or psychiatrist, Amy is a sociologist which means she examines more than just the individual. She explains: “My research focuses on suicide and self-harm. These are topics that are more usually studied using statistical methods. In contrast, my work draws on qualitative, creative and feminist methodologies, and is informed by sociology and wider social sciences such as geography and anthropology.”

So how did her work as a sociologist lead her here? “I started off looking at self-harm – or specifically self-injury – for my undergraduate dissertation in sociology, back in 2002,” she says. “This demonstrated both the lack of sociological work on self-harm, as well as, at that time, a lack of qualitative research – most work then was ‘about’ people who self-harmed, rather than with them, and generally took a clinical perspective where self-harm was seen as a pathological sign of psychiatric disorder.”

The topic was one she felt strongly about: “As someone who had self-harmed, I was driven to rectify this and was really fortunate to get to do so on a bigger scale via my PhD research at Edinburgh.”

Suicide is sometimes seen as very different from self-harm, but increasingly Amy has found the relationship between the two can be very complex: “Throughout this time I was clear I was researching self-harm – not suicide. However, I increasingly came to question the divide between self-harm and suicide; and to become more interested in looking at both. There is still relatively little sociological or qualitative research on self-harm and suicide, however, these disciplinary and methodological approaches have a huge amount to offer in understanding and responding to suicide.”

“For instance, self-harm and suicide are unequally distributed among social groups – there are gender differences, and disparity in socioeconomic status or background of those who die by suicide,” she continues. “Sociological research can help to understand why these social disparities occur.”

Returning to Edinburgh

After working in the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (at the University of Edinburgh) and a year at the University of Lincoln, she rejoined the University of Edinburgh as a Chancellor’s Fellow in 2016. The fellowship provided Amy with a chance to really focus on her research area, thus the Suicide Cultures project began: “My Chancellor’s Fellowship had a huge impact on my research – I had time, job security and intellectual space to develop the ideas that became both the Suicide Cultures research project, as well as the ‘sibling project’ Suicide in/as Politics, which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and developed with co-investigator Dr Ana Jordan, from the Politics department at the University of Lincoln.

“The interdisciplinary nature of my Chancellor’s Fellowship also provided a fertile context, and inspired colleagues in the School of Health, in order to really innovate with methodological approaches to studying suicide.”

Amy’s work is giving suicide and self-harm research more dimensions, looking at the whole picture, rather than individual cases: “Although much has changed in how suicide is responded to and made sense of, all too often suicide is met with silence, or negative, stigmatising responses. Additionally, it is framed as an individual issue of mental illness, with social and cultural contexts rarely discussed.

“The research that I – and many other colleagues – do, underlines that suicide is complex, is shaped by social, cultural, and political factors, and necessitates multidisciplinary approaches to inform attempts to respond to or prevent suicide,” she continues.

Making a difference

Although severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Amy is optimistic about the results and is excited to see what the project unveils: “I’m still working on the analysis for the Suicide Cultures pilot project, as this was significantly disrupted by Covid-19, and the restrictions on my working life that being locked down with a young family brought.”

Despite the trials of the past 15 months, Amy’s goal is still clear: “I hope that we will develop a much better understanding of how social and cultural factors shape how suicide is practiced and responded to in diverse areas and communities within Scotland. As part of this, I hope also to contribute to shifting the landscape of suicide research somewhat, so that social and cultural factors or contexts are taken more seriously in developing responses to suicide.”

So how can staff get involved in the project? Amy shares more: “We have a monthly virtual seminar series, which is open to all, as well as a mailing list and network which we are keen to grow. Our research will take us across Scotland, so we are always happy to be put in touch with organisations and individuals across the country – and beyond – who are interested in deepening our understanding of suicide in relation to society and culture.”

The Suicide Cultures Team includes Research Fellows Joe Anderson, Rebecca Helman and Sarah Huque, PhD Student Emily Yue, and Administrator Asia Podgorska. The Suicide in/as Politics team comprises co-investigator Ana Jordan and Research Associate Alex Oaten at the University of Lincoln, along with Edinburgh based Research Associate Hazel Marzetti. You can find out more about the Suicide Cultures project on their website.

Support for you and others

Now more than ever, we need to encourage people to talk about suicide, to feel able to ask for help, and to feel confident to give help when it is needed – The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), August 2021

You can find more information and how to have these conversations in this PDF from United to prevent suicide.

If you want to talk to someone about how you’re feeling or offer support to others, there are resources and support available on the Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing hub.

Images: Getty Images/iStockphoto