A York funeral director has teamed up with a woman bereaved by suicide 40 years ago for a short film aimed at preventing people taking their own lives and urging the public to play their part.
Hayley Owen, 32, and Alex Sutcliffe feature in the five-minute video Preventable.
Alex manages York’s and North Yorkshire County Council’s Major Incident Response Team (MIRT), helping people cope with trauma including road accidents and suicide.
The organisation didn’t exist in 1981 when Alex, then 14, got home from school in Hull to find her 15-year-old brother Richard had taken his own life.
Alex said her brother’s death still affects her. “I always sleep with the light and television on.
“If I was to cure myself of that, would that mean I have let go of Richard completely? I don’t want to do that,” she said.
As well as managing MIRT, Alex, who now lives in Bedale, runs a group for people bereaved by suicide.
She added that suicide is preventable and hopes as many people as possible will watch the film and complete the associated training. “Any one of us can encounter someone at risk of suicide,” she explained.
‘I feel for the families’
Preventable urges viewers to do a 30-minute online training course with the Zero Suicide Alliance (ZSA).
Alex and Hayley, who have not yet met, were filmed for it separately late last year.
Before Covid 19 there were around 25 suicides a year in York, with about 6,500 across the UK (in comparison, about 1,780 people died in UK traffic accidents in 2018).
It’s still too soon to know the full impact of the coronavirus. But the Office for National Statistics has pointed to 10% of people having thoughts of suicide or self harm in the first week of lockdown last year.
Hayley Owen, an independent funeral director for five years based in York, has arranged many funerals for people who’ve died by suicide.
She was filmed for Preventable in her home, mortuary and funeral parlour and wants the film’s message to make a difference. “Every time I get a call about a suicide, I hope it’s the last one,” she said. “I feel for all families, but especially those bereaved by suicide.”
Hayley said dealing with the aftermath was not easy for professionals either, and admitted to drinking more alcohol when dealing with someone who’s taken their own life. “It’s not just a body,” she added. “It’s a person who was breathing and walking, part of somebody’s life.”
Alex said her late brother was kind with lots of empathy. “He would often stop to talk to homeless people, telling us they were down on their luck,” she said.
She was filmed for Preventable looking through a box of Richard’s possessions, including his school tie and an epaulette from the air training corps (ATC).
He’d wanted to be an RAF pilot but when he became too tall decided he’d be an RAF engineer instead.
Sadly, that day never came and the devastated Sutcliffe family found themselves attending Richard’s funeral. “We got the ATC cadets to line the drive of the crematorium,” said Alex. “A sight to behold when you’re a 14 year old girl.”
Mark Willis, training manager at mental health charity York Mind, hoped Preventable’s message would have an impact, saying a suicide prevention course was “surely one of the most worthwhile things one can do in life.
“You will be taught skills that anyone can learn, they are simple, they do not need prior training or knowledge and can be used to save a life.”
‘We all need to be vigilant’
Andy Chapman, York council’s suicide prevention lead and a retired police officer, also urged people to do the online training.
He said Preventable was “really powerful and demonstrates how anyone can be deeply affected by suicide. It’s the first time I’ve heard the perspective of an undertaker. It’s a very valuable, thought-provoking insight into their work.”
He said people need to talk “much more openly about this very difficult, sensitive subject so that we can save lives, together” and said the pandemic means the need “to support each other more than ever before and recognise that someone close to us may be at risk of suicide.
“We all need to be vigilant and more confident with communication when it comes to suicide risk, because the consequences of not being can be devastating”
York’s Mek It Media duo Helen Leavey and Simon Collins, who made Preventable, have both done the online suicide prevention training. “It was very informative, a lot easier than we expected,” said Helen. “We’re grateful to have some good knowledge to hand. You just never know when it might come in useful.”