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Do suicide memorials and prevention messages do more harm than good?

15/03/2021

Dr Danielle McFeeters and Dr David Boyda from the University of Wolverhampton, in collaboration with Ulster University, Samaritans and Highways England, have been investigating the impact of exposure to suicide memorials, community laid messages of support and official prevention signage on suicidal incident rates at high-risk locations.

The project involved an analysis of suicide statistics at motorway bridges, where so called ‘decorations’ have been placed to mark sites known to have a frequent occurrence of suicide related behaviours.

The Samaritans warn against the dangers of publicising such locations which risk alerting vulnerable individuals to possible methods of ending their lives by suicide. Additionally, it was speculated that these signs or symbols may unintentionally signal sites associated with prior suicidal behaviour and could inadvertently increase activity in these areas.

On this basis, the team set out to compare the number of incidents of suicidal behaviour on motorway bridges across England, prior to and following the strategic placement of decorations.

Overall, there was no significant increase or decrease found in the proportion of pre and post incidents, which would suggest that these neither prevent nor promote suicidal behaviours.

However, the researchers urge caution in the interpretation of these findings.

Dr McFeeters said: “Whilst our research tentatively dispute concerns surrounding the risk of highlighting these locations via memorials and suicide prevention messaging, these findings are preliminary and so I’m hesitant to draw any definitive conclusions at this stage.

“Individual appraisals may depend upon a variety of factors including the timing, the recipient, and the content of the message.

“Suicide prevention messages may well be a lifeline in times of distress, whilst memorials might conceivably represent a stark reminder of the psychological anguish they are presently experiencing, but much of this remains to be determined.

“We must strive to better understand how these messages are perceived and how they can be used more effectively to preserve life.”

Since the project is one of the first of its kind, it is strongly advised that a series of further work is conducted.

There remains a very real possibility that notifying the public of these areas can reduce barriers to suicide, by offering vulnerable individuals a viable method to imitate and increase identification with others in similar positions.

On the other hand, there is valuable potential to work with survivors and bereaved family members to establish a compassionate method of reaching out to and comforting those seriously complementing suicide.

The team also advise that future work should additionally look to consider the wider impact of media coverage of memorials in these high-risk locations.

Read the paper: An analysis of the impact of suicide prevention messages and memorials on motorway bridges, published in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour.

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