“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming” – The Forgotten Survivors

When Ingrid’s daughter died by suicide she couldn’t imagine the trauma that would face her. Today Luke Hastings exclusively reveals the impact of suicide bereavement after the Health Select Committee recommended new measures of after-care for families left behind.

Michelle was 28 years-old. Her mother Ingrid von Hunnius says she was “bright and intelligent” after graduating with a master’s degree in Biochemistry.

Ingrid recalls the night they stayed up until the early hours of the morning partying before Michelle left for a trip abroad to work in India.

She then points to a photograph of Michelle on the mantelpiece. Ingrid’s next words are heartbreaking: “Six months later, she was dead.”

Michelle died by suicide after overdosing on pills prescribed to treat her depression when she returned home from India.

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A picture of Michelle. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

It was then that Ingrid’s “hugely traumatic” experience began.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not just one emotion. It’s shock. It’s sheer terror. It’s indescribable.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief.

“It felt like somebody had hit me in the solar plexus. It stunned me really. You go beside yourself. You’ve never really experienced anything like it. I think you get put onto the baseline of survival,” she says.

Ingrid explains she felt isolated and lost in society, depressed by the stigma that faces those who are bereaved by suicide.

“I find that with the general public or with friends I can’t fully express myself because she’s still part of me. I don’t bring her up because people don’t talk about bereavement by suicide,” she says.

With no postvention support, Ingrid was then left feeling suicidal.

“I had this sense that I was walking around this dark hole and I could just slip into it. One day it occurred to me that if I took a lot of tablets I could get into that dark hole, because I thought Michelle was in there,” she says.

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A painting of Michelle, which sits on the wall in Ingrid’s home. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

Now, the Health Select Committee has recommended new after-care measures for those like Ingrid – the forgotten survivors of suicide.

This follows the committee’s four-month inquiry into suicide prevention. The committee’s interim report, released in December, suggests more primary and secondary support for the families left behind after suicide.

The report says those bereaved by suicide are “not entitled to any support” or a family liaison officer, which would be standard practice in many other causes of death.

The full report will be released at the end of this month with complete details of the support the committee recommends.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was part of the inquiry and says those bereaved by suicide are “left to fend for themselves”.

“We (the Health Select Committee) feel very strongly that there’s not enough support for families. There’s not a consistent enough approach across the country in the way that families are helped and supported,” he says.

The committee’s MPs aren’t alone in feeling there’s not enough support. According to an exclusive Guardian survey a resounding 97% of people don’t think families bereaved by suicide are given enough help.

The committee’s report called suicide rates “unacceptable” and the Samaritans say a person takes their own life every 90 minutes in the UK.

After suicide, the Office for National Statistics found that between six and ten ‘survivors’ are left behind, meaning up to 61,000 people are bereaved by suicide every year.

Those loved ones are three times more likely to take their own lives, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

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Mara Grunau, Executive Director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canada. Photograph: Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Executive Director at the centre, which is based in Canada. They have the largest collection of suicide research in the world.

She explains there’s “no grief like suicide grief” and says that “postvention is critical prevention”.

Mara also says research from the centre confirms those bereaved by suicide feel “shunned,” leaving their grief “un-dealt with”.

The Guardian survey reveals over three-quarters of people believe there’s a stigma around suicide bereavement in the UK.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) say that the insensitive use of language adds to that stigma.

According to the Guardian survey, 60% of the general public would say a person ‘committed suicide’ – even though the term ‘died by suicide’ is recommended.

SOBS play a significant part in many survivor’s lives, including Ingrid. After being unable to find any suicide postvention support, Ingrid teamed up with the charity to start her own support group in Bournemouth.

Ingrid calls the group a “family”. However, she believes there’s even a stigma around attending a support group for suicide bereavement.

“A group is like someone touching your hand, it pulls you out of that dark hole, but the stigma around it stops you putting out that hand,” she explains.

Ingrid says that her own children even believe it’s “bizarre and sick” that she runs the group.

Stigma isn’t the only issue with support groups, as SOBS groups only run once a month, which can be a problem for many who need more help.

Halani Foulsham had to wait 30 days to attend a group after “having a bomb dropped on her life” when her mother died by suicide in 2014.

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Halani looking up to her mother. Photograph: Halani Foulsham.

Halani is the founder of Thought Climber, who have recently released the ‘After Journal,’ a one-of-a-kind interactive and creative book to help those who have been bereaved by suicide to get through their grief.

“The hope is that the journal has shared experience of others to help and is a campaign tool to say we need people to listen. Suicide is a social epidemic. We need to tackle the rampant stigma,” she says.

Following the Health Select Committee report, Halani says she’s concerned that even if there’s more support available in the future, it “won’t mean much” if people don’t know it exists. She says this is a big problem in her experiences with current services.

Ingrid and Halani are not alone in trying to make a difference to postvention, which currently fails bereaved families.

Shirley Smith lost her “normal, bright and witty” 19-year-old son Daniel to suicide in 2005.

She believes the new report is a “huge step” in bringing suicide postvention into the forefront of the political spectrum. However, she’s wary that the report could be “just noise”.

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Shirley Smith, founder of ‘If U Care Share,’ was bereaved by suicide in 2005.

Following the death of her son, she founded the charity ‘If U Care Share’ alongside her children who were left “devastated”.

The Health Select Committee mentioned Shirley’s Durham-based foundation in their report, as they’ve pioneered a system in England to help those who are bereaved by suicide.

Working closely with Durham Public Health D.C.C, they provide a 48-hour service to the survivors left behind after a suicide in the area, helping them with everything from emotional support to how to deal with the coroner’s inquest.

The system is based on a model from Northern Ireland by Barry McGale and since it started in September 2014, the service has helped 94 people to get through the aftermath of their tragedy.

Shirley believes her charity’s system is “critical” for those who have lost a loved one through suicide and says it should be funded nationwide.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief” – Ingrid von Hunnius

Durham’s Labour MP Kevan Jones believes similar arrangements to the ‘If U Care Share’ system will need to be put in place if the newly proposed support is to work.

He thinks the report is a “very important” step in the right direction and stresses there needs to be “clear pathways” for those bereaved by suicide to get support.

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Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb thinks there should be a consistent national support network in place. He says current services are “wholly inadequate”.

The North Norfolk MP had his own experience with being bereaved by suicide after the loss of his sister in 2015.

He believes it’s “incredibly important” that the government fund new support services and allow third-party voluntary organisations to run them.

“People find it impossible to move on after a suicide. There’s often a lot of guilt and sometimes anger. The net effect of those emotions is that the person becomes quite trapped.

“Ensuring that someone has access to counselling and support is critical,” he says.

Conservative MP Charles Walker is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Suicide Prevention and says he’s concerned about the current lack of suicide postvention support.

However, he’s worried further funding will be unlikely due to economical restrictions.

Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates thinks it’s “pathetic” that the government use austerity as an excuse for not providing suicide postvention support.

Paul attempted to take his own life at the age of 17 and is now a mental health expert, working alongside the NHS supporting people who suffer with mental health conditions, including those bereaved by suicide.

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Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates. Photograph: Paul Scates.

Paul believes we are “letting people down” when they are “left with nothing” and adds that it “doesn’t cost much” to team those affected by suicide bereavement up with experts like himself.

He also thinks the new report is “vague” and is concerned it will simply be “lip service”.

For now, the families left behind after suicide will have to wait and see if the government will accept the recommendations made by the Health Select Committee. Four years ago, the same committee released a similar report. However, critics including Halani Foulsham and Shirley Smith said it resulted in very little being done.

Perhaps now the tide is turning. As well as the Health Select Committee’s inquiry into suicide, Public Health England recently released their guide to providing local services to those bereaved by suicide and Theresa May said the government will tackle suicide last week.

We will find out soon if the government will take action and more after-care will be provided for the forgotten survivors of suicide.


VIEW – The full layout of this investigation, made as if it would go into the Guardian newspaper: https://indd.adobe.com/view/ee840b6c-e149-4101-8c8c-cdb60d4b0378

LISTEN – An exclusive interview with suicide attempt survivor Jonny Benjamin.

WATCH – Exclusive interviews from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

READ MORE – Read more about suicide bereavement, as the investigation meets Lin, a woman bereaved by the suicide of her husband: https://theforgottensurvivors.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/lin-story/

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Behind the article – the entire process (final part)

Happy new year!

The Forgotten Survivors investigation is nearing it’s conclusion, so here’s an insight into the entire process of putting together this exclusive investigation. Strap yourself in, it was a bumpy ride.

The beginning – pitching the idea

As I walked into Bournemouth University on the morning of October 17th I was shivering for two reasons. 1 – it was the day of my pitch and 2 – it was cold.

It was a scary experience, being summoned into a room by two (admittedly very nice) tutors so they could criticise (constructively, I hoped) what I thought was a fresh and original idea.

Thankfully, they agreed that it was and The Forgotten Survivors investigation was born.

By the time I walked into that pitch I already had an angle and interviewees ready to speak to me.

I had been researching suicide bereavement and postvention for around two weeks and already it was abundantly clear that there wasn’t enough support for victims of suicide bereavement.

Dr Andrew Mayers, a psychology lecturer at Bournemouth University with a passion for mental health put me in touch with several people via Twitter to get me going in the investigation.

Lift off

From there,  I didn’t look back and proceeded to interview MPs, including Oliver Colvile, Charles Walker and then Kevan Jones.

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I was conducting at least one interview a day for a couple of weeks, even using Skype to contact Canada to speak to their Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Director there and she was brilliant. She told me that “postvention is critical prevention” – in response to which I punched the air with delight. But it even got better, as she hit me with some great quotes about the stigma around suicide bereavement. I hadn’t even considered stigma up until then.

That’s where the twin pillars of my investigation were built. I sat down with my brilliant tutor Andy and we decided these concepts would be where I would always come back to.

I then had the chance to speak to suicide attempt survivors Jonny Benjamin and Paul Scates, both passionate campaigners for mental health.

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Jonny Benjamin with the man who talked him down from Waterloo Bridge in London. Photograph: Jonny Benjamin.

So far I had, had the pleasure of speaking to some incredible people and we hadn’t even hit November yet.

The investigation is Trumped

But then, the US Election rolled round and I, alongside two of my colleagues, was given the incredible opportunity to travel to Washington D.C to cover the historic election live for Bournemouth University’s coverage.

It really lived up to my expectations too. What an amazing experience, covering the election on TV, Radio and Online. I even made a couple of appearances on the University of Maryland’s coverage.

I still can’t believe Donald Trump won it.

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US flags at the Washington Monument.

Back down to earth

After all that excitement, I flew straight back to sitting on my bed on my laptop, sending out tens of emails everyday to try and get people to talk to me.

As I’m writing this post, it means they did. Thankfully.

The biggest challenge

After several phone conversations I went to see a woman called Ingrid, who kindly agreed to talk to me. She was bereaved by the suicide of her daughter Michelle eight years ago and now runs the Bournemouth SOBS support group. She was precisely the interviewee I needed.

I had MPs and experts, but no emotion.

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Ingrid Von Hunnis holding a photograph of her daughter Michelle, who died by suicide eight years ago.

Ingrid told me her heartbreaking story that left me fighting back tears as we spoke in the living room of her Dorset home.

Staying emotionally detached here was virtually impossible. I left that house feeling drained. Ingrid’s story had a big effect on me.

At this point, I will take you back to when I met Dr Ann Luce a couple of weeks after the investigation started. I didn’t interview her, we just spoke (for over two hours) about looking after my interviewees – and myself. When Ann said that to me, I didn’t understand at the time.

Fast forward under a month and I knew exactly what she meant. How I felt must’ve not even compared to how Ingrid was feeling after I left.

Another visit

Ingrid was not the only bereaved person I met during the project. I travelled to Hampshire to meet Lin, who was bereaved by the suicide of her husband four years ago. She wished to stay anonymous due to the media coverage surrounding her husband’s suicide.

After phone conversations with her, she was dubious of being involved due to that media coverage. This presented her with trust issues, but I built a rapport with her and the interview went smoothly. Afterwards, I gave her the list of helpline numbers and she said she would consider attending a support group. This was probably the most professionally rewarding part of the project.

Inside the suicide sanctuary

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Filming inside Maytree suicide sanctuary in London.

For the video element of the project, I travelled into London to meet Maytree suicide sanctuary director Natalie Howarth and volunteer Steven Altman.

Natalie spoke very passionately about suicide, whilst Steven told me his incredible story of going from a politician, to attempting suicide, being imprisoned and then being bereaved by suicide. You can see the two minute video in the investigation.

More interviewees

The project continued to progress as I spoke to Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a man who spends everyday campaigning for mental health equality.

I had a phone call with Shirley Smith too, getting in touch after Kevan Jones MP suggested we talk. She told me about a new system If U Care Share are pioneering in Durham where volunteers help those left behind after suicide, filling in the gaps of a non-existent after-care system.

Whilst all of this was going on, I received a message through the blog from a person called Halani Foulsham, she said she had been bereaved and wanted to talk. So we did, after several times of rescheduling due to various issues. When we spoke Halani was very open and passionate about talking more about suicide and reducing the stigma. She founded Thought Climber, which is a new interactive, creative journal to help those bereaved by suicide.

Putting it together

After doing more interviews than I can count, many of which unfortunately won’t make the final article due to word restrictions, I then started to put the entire project together.

The 1500 word article was put together initially in just one afternoon. It almost wrote itself. Since then though, I think I’ve written about 100 drafts!

The video element took some time to put together, as did the audio part (with Jonny Benjamin). Over a few weeks I fine tweaked the pieces to the point that I’m happy with them.

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I also created a survey to get some primary research for the project, which gave some very interesting results (view the results here).

Meanwhile, I’ve been updating the blog, social media, creating interactive timelines/infographics and doing all the (slightly boring) admin!

Changing my perspective

The experience has completely changed my perspective on how I view a person who dies by suicide. It’s changed the language I use too, I learnt that saying someone ‘committed’ suicide implies it’s a crime (from before the Suicide Act, 1961) and I now don’t use that phrase as it adds to the stigma around suicide. (learn more about that here)

Breakthrough

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Ben Bradshaw MP.

But then, suddenly a big moment. I needed a firm news angle for the article so I had been closely following the Health Select Committee inquiry into suicide prevention and postvention.

Ben Bradshaw MP, who is part of the committee, agreed to talk to me and he exclusively revealed that the committee strongly feel there isn’t enough after-care for those bereaved by suicide, meaning they will be recommending new measures that may even include more funding.

The week after, the committee’s interim report was released and I frantically got back into contact with many of my interviewees to get their reaction to the report.

After that, it was a case of getting everything together and putting it on buzz.bournemouth.ac.uk so my tutors can look at it and decided what grade it’s worth.

Thank you if have supported this project and/or read the blogs. I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoy the finished project.

Remember, it’s coming on January 12th 2017.

Follow the investigation on Twitter and Facebook for regular updates.

 

 

Report reaction: Q and A with Halani Foulsham, who was bereaved by the suicide of her mother

Following the release of the Health Select Committee report into suicide prevention (including postvention), I caught up with Halani Foulsham who gave her views on the report. Halani was bereaved by the suicide of her mother in 2014. She is also the founder of Thought Climber, who are currently working on a suicide bereavement journal.

-Are you pleased that the Health Select Committee has recommended improved primary and secondary care and support for those who are bereaved by suicide?

The short answer is yes.

However, my concern is that improved primary and secondary care won’t mean much unless people know these resources exist – which is part of the problem we face today. There doesn’t seem to be an effective communication practice to reach the tens of thousands of people who face isolation each year, While the UK’s current resources, including local and national charities, need to be robustly developed further, many people I’ve spoken with are often not aware of what’s available to them, struggle with isolation, and don’t know where to begin seeking and asking for much needed support.

-Is this a big step to getting those bereaved by suicide the support that they need, as it is recommended support for those bereaved by suicide is included in suicide prevention plans?

I do believe that recognition by the government gives increased credibility regarding the urgency in tackling suicide, however it’s also my belief that just because the government recognises “a need” doesn’t necessarily mean that it translates into appropriate action. Look at the 2012 Suicide Prevention Strategy.

I think a “big step” on the part of the government would be the strategic follow-up of why their plan failed, lessons learned, and implementation of new practices and accountability.

-How important is it that the government follows these recommendations to give support services to help those bereaved by suicide?

While government support is an important part in tackling this social epidemic, I strongly believe that survivors of loss by suicide, front line researchers studying the impact of this type of trauma on mental health, coupled with media and alternative sources of financial support play a far more important role in helping those bereaved by suicide.

Lives are continuously lost every day of every week and so we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for the government to make decisions that increase impact. If anything, I think, we the people, need to take the lead in finding solutions ourselves by pulling together our own resources. Then, if and when, the government and local councils are finally ready to take deliberate and coherent action, at least we will be that much further along than if we had waited.

I probably sound very skeptical but that’s because I am.

-Should more have been included in the report?

Based on the report, it’s clear that more was to be included but could not be at this time. I’d like to understand the extent to which this report was abbreviated from its intended volume. At this stage, I’ve nothing to compare it with and given that so little attention, follow-up, and accountability has been given by the government to subject of suicide, I am sadly accepting of what little we’ve been offered at this stage.

Perhaps I find some refuge when I think of it in terms of Lao Tzu’s famous expression: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Halani features in the full investigation – released January 12th 2017.

 

Health Select Committee recommends new measures for postvention

Throughout the investigation, the Health Select Committee’s report into suicide prevention (and postvention) has been ongoing.

The inquiry began in late-July and saw the last of the oral evidence at the end of November.

Now, they committee has released the interim report.

The report states that the committee feels suicide is preventable and “unacceptable”, adding that they believe suicide prevention plans should include after-care for those bereaved by suicide.

Last week, I spoke to a member of the Health Select Committee who has given an exclusive insight into the thoughts of the members of the committee.

Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP, exclusively told the investigation that the committee feel “strongly” that there’s not enough postvention support in place for those who are bereaved by suicide.

Ben Bradshaw’s full quotes on the outcome of the report will be released in the investigation next month, as well as reaction from MPs such as Kevan Jones (Labour MP), Charles Walker (Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Suicide Prevention) and Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat MP).

I will also have reaction from the charity If U Care Share (with comment from founder Shirley Smith) and will be speaking to Halani Foulsham (founder of Thought Climber) to get her views.

With the release date of the investigation set for the January 12th 2017, the full report from the Health Select Committee will fall around that time.

This means the release of this investigation will coincide with the report being published which presents great opportunity for the news angle of the project.

In the mean time, follow the investigation on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date on its progress.

 

Behind the article – A new logo, more interviewees and an update (part three)

It’s that time again… Let’s get behind the article.

A lot of hard work has gone into the project so far and it’s starting to take shape, with a new logo for Facebook and Twitter too. The video element (find out more here) is in the editing stage and is nearly complete – after I decided to completely re-edit what I had last week.

The audio element to assist the project is with Jonny Benjamin. We spoke about him in part one of the behind the article series (it’s here if you need a refresher). That’s coming along really nicely, two minutes just isn’t enough to tell his incredible story but I will try!

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Editing Jonny Benjamin’s interview using Burli

With both of the broadcast elements nearly done, I penned a draft of the article – and then another – and another – yes… and another. Finally I pulled myself away from the keyboard when I realised I have to wait a week or two for the Health Select Committee to release their findings from their inquiry into suicide prevention and postvention.

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Ben Bradshaw MP – part of the Health Select Committee – picture from BenBradshaw.co.uk

The outcome of this will be very important to the article for obvious reasons. I am intrigued to see the findings and will be interviewing Ben Bradshaw MP (who is part of the committee) to add another element to my article.

I am in the process of creating an interactive document using Adobe Indesign which will contain statistics, graphs, maps helplines and quotes from the investigation in an easily accessible document. This will provide a really helpful online element to go into the project.

I am also now at the stage where I can design how it would look in The Guardian newspaper.The Guardian is my ‘target publication’ for this article. I have been working on that last week.

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A sneak peak at how the layout will look for the project

If you are now very confused as to what I mean, click here to find out all about the background of the project.

I have conducted two big interviews for the project since my last post.

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Norman Lamb MP – picture from Wikipedia creative commons

The first was Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. He’s very passionate about campaigning for mental health. He’s also a forgotten survivor himself, as he was bereaved by the death of his sister by suicide last year.

Mr Lamb called for funding and support for those bereaved by suicide.

The second interviewee was recommended to me by Kevan Jones MP, who I spoke to previously in the investigation.

Shirley Smith lost her son Daniel to suicide in 2005 and set-up the charity If U Care Share.

The foundation raises money and awareness to prevent suicide and also helps with postvention.

Shirley explained a system in Durham they run for those who are bereaved by suicide. This unique system is only used in Durham, and she says it should be applied across the UK.

You can find out more about that system and here from all my other interviewees in the full project – coming soon.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @TheFSurvivors and like us on Facebook.

Need help? Suicide helplines and resources

If you’re feeling suicidal, you’re not alone.

You can call any of these organisations for help:

The Samaritans

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The Samaritans have a helpline which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can talk to them about anything.

Thinking of killing yourself? Click here.

SOBS

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SOBS are a charity who are aiming to set-up suicide bereavement support groups across the UK. They also have a national helpline – 0300 111 5065. It’s open between 9am and 9pm every day.

Find an interactive map of their support groups here.

Maytree

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Maytree is a respite centre, where those who are feeling suicidal can go and stay. It’s a brilliant place to clear your mind and speak confidentially to volunteers.

To arrange a stay or to just talk over the phone, call 020 7263 7070.

If you want to find out more about Maytee, click here.

Papyrus

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Papyrus work to prevent young people taking their own lives. If you are a young person and feel like you need to talk, the HOPELine is there to help.

Recently The Forgotten Survivors investigation spoke exclusively to a HOPELine advisor. That interview will be on the blog soon, so look out for that.

Please note that these four charities mentioned in this post are the best four organisations to speak to from the research of this investigation.

There are many more charities out there that may better suit your needs.

 

 

Where have you been and what’s next?

As two blogs have come out this week, you may not have realised I’d gone away.

(Find them here and here)

Thankfully I had time before I left to schedule them to be released in my absence.

So where have I been? Well, I was sent by Bournemouth University to cover the US Election live from Washington DC and the University of Maryland.

It was an incredible, once in a lifetime experience that I will next forget.

But enough about that, what’s next for The Forgotten Survivors investigation?

Firstly, more interviews. (Whilst battling off my jet-lag) I just had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Alys Cole-King just before writing this and we have arranged to talk further next week.

I also will be speaking to more MPs amongst several other experts in the field of suicide postvention and bereavement.

It’s almost time to start writing the article too. It’s just two months until the full release of the report – stay tuned on www.theforgottensurvivors.com for updates every week.

Also don’t forget to follow me on twitter @TheFSurvivors for even more updates and information.