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Bournemouth: A multi-agency response to railway-related deaths

In Bournemouth, a cluster of suicides linked to the railways led to targeted action by public health, council, transport and community partners. The response included a strong focus on communications, helping to change how the local media reports on suicide and mental health.

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The challenge and response

Local partners worked together in response to a series of suicides linked to Bournemouth’s railway network, and in particular to one railway station. This involved staff from Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP Council); Public Health Dorset, which provides services for both BCP Council and Dorset Council; and other partners.

British Transport Police (BTP) had processes in place for responding to railway-related incidents and quickly set up a ‘gold level’ group bringing together the key partners. The immediate response included visible patrols at the station during operating hours (organised by BTP) and discussions around improving the station’s physical environment.

Working with the media

Another key element of the response was managing communications, both with the local media and communities. Media monitoring by Public Health Dorset had picked up a lot of irresponsible and sensationalist reporting of deaths by suicide, including reporting on the location and method of deaths.

Taking a lead from expert organisations including Samaritans and with guidance from Bournemouth University’s Professor Ann Luce, an expert in the responsible and ethical reporting of suicide, the communications team worked with local journalists to change the way in which deaths were reported.

Kirsty Hillier was Communications Manager at the time and now works for NHS Dorset. She said:

We would follow up with journalists and editors every time an article was published and talk to them about changes they could make to the story online, such as including information on where people could go for support. We would provide story ideas so they could tackle these issues from a different angle, and photos so they didn’t have to keep using pictures of the scene.

The team attended all the inquests and worked closely with Dorset Coroner’s Service, advising on responsible reporting, which led to the coroner giving clear direction to journalists. The positive impact of all this work has been evidenced by continued media monitoring, with a big change in how issues such as suicide and mental health are reported on locally.

Working with communities

There was also a need to work with the local community. One early challenge was the issue of remembrance ‘shrines’. Samaritans suggest that it is unhelpful for communities to place items such as notes and flowers at the site of a death by suicide.

BCP Council’s community development team worked with local people to explain why these visible signs would be removed and to channel their efforts in a positive way. For example, support material was placed in a nearby park, rather than at the site of a death. 

Kirsty Hillier said: 

Through this work, and using channels such as community forums to share information and galvanise support, local people were involved and we all had a shared aim.

Some targeted campaign content was produced based on insights from Dorset’s real-time surveillance (RTS) suicide data, aimed at specific locations and demographics. National campaigns such as Samaritans’ ‘Small talk saves lives’ were tapped into, with partner agencies putting information on their channels in a coordinated way.

Looking ahead

Sam Crowe, Joint Director of Public Health for Dorset and BCP Councils, said the multi-agency response had been crucial.

There is a growing awareness across all the partners that this is not just about suicide – it’s about a whole number of issues that affect many more people. Suicide is just the tragic visible end.

We now have much greater awareness about mental health, and the importance of supporting people to be confident to talk about it and know what to do if someone discloses how they may be feeling.

Public Health Dorset used data from the police and other partners about suicide and attempted suicides, which highlighted themes, trends and locations. As well as enabling an immediate response, such as ensuring access to bereavement support, this data helped with targeting suicide prevention efforts based on local need.

Dorset’s NHS Long Term Plan suicide prevention funding has been used for the RTS data work, community investment for high-risk groups, training for frontline staff, campaign work and other workstreams. The team is now discussing with Dorset Integrated Care System (ICS) how this work could be mainstreamed as part of ongoing mental health transformation work.

Sam Crowe said the suicide prevention work has had real impact and changed how people think about the issue.

For the past three years we have received NHS funding to enable the public health team to commission and provide training on suicide prevention for a wide range of frontline teams. 

The funding also meant we could employ a dedicated communications lead, working with partners to design campaigns based on behavioural insights and surveillance information about who might be most at risk.

Without this funding we simply would not have the resources to work in this way. I am concerned that the current pressure on all public sector budgets will put this work at risk in the near future without continued dedicated funding for suicide prevention.


For further information contact Sam Crowe, Director of Public Health

[email protected]

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