Public bystander intervention & suicide prevention

There are four key ways to prevent suicides in public places such as on the rail network:

  1. restrict access to the rail corridor
  2. encourage an individual to seek help prior to and at a point of crisis
  3. encourage intervention by third parties – members of the public and people with suicide prevention training (sometimes known as ‘gate-keepers’) and
  4. responsible reporting by the media.

See here for more information about this research.

Network Rail, British Transport Police and the Samaritans in the United Kingdom launched a public campaign in 2017 to encourage members of the pubic to trust their instinct if they think something is wrong with someone and make an intervention. It proposes that the individual make ‘small talk’ with the individual at risk as a means to interrupt any suicidal ideation that they may be experiencing. The Small Talk Saves Lives campaign entered its 6th phase in 2023.

This campaign makes the public more literate and responsive to warning signs of suicide in public places and provides instruction about immediate appropriate action. It is complementary to ongoing suicide awareness training of rail staff. Together these measures save lives. More information about this campaign is available here.

This 2022 study by Ngo et al investigated the prevalence of preventative actions by bystanders, the relationship, if any, between first-hand preventions by bystanders and the degree of ambiguity around the imminence of danger and the nature of first-hand preventions by bystanders. It found that in 635 cases of suicide prevention, bystanders played a role in intervention. They were identified as first responders in 11% of cases and as raising the alarm in 11% of cases.

It concludes that rail policy-makers should consider education and support for bystanders and staff: for example, by making known the prevalence of helping, the importance of intervening, and what types of intervention are most helpful.

Access the published paper here.

The TrackSAFE Foundation has undertaken some background research to inform the development of a similar type of campaign in Australia. This will be considered following the rollout of suicide awareness training for rail staff. This training was launched in September 2023.

Pracademic Review of Global Bystander and Gatekeeper Public Awareness Campaigns (2010-2021) by James Bannerman and Ian Stevens, February 2022

Key findings:

Suicide and suicide prevention are complex phenomena, as are the worlds of marketing and persuasion. For this reason, rather than conducting this research in a uni-linear way, the authors have consciously set out to explore a diverse range of campaigns to help TrackSAFE justify and ultimately shape a suicide prevention campaign in the unique environment of an operational railway. In the process, nine consistent themes and lessons emerged:

  1. a growing body of evidence suggests that bystanders do not need to be trained in suicide prevention techniques to make a meaningful intervention (e.g., Owens et al. 2019; Marsh et al., 2020)
  2. of most concern to those that these types of campaign target are:
    • a fear that they will say the wrong thing, despite research indicating that it does not matter what one says, for any acknowledgement is better than none. In other words, ‘You cannot say the wrong thing’ because acknowledgement is what individuals in suicidal crisis seem to need the most
    • not knowing what to say in the first instance to ‘burst the bubble’ of the individual in crisis
  3. effective bystander campaigns leverage the concept of ‘gut instinct’ i.e., the ‘sixth sense’ that tells us when something is wrong and requires an intervention
  4. bystander campaigns have a strategic focus on making the public more literate and responsive to warning signs and subsequently taking immediate appropriate action
  5. gatekeeper campaigns tend to be highly structured, require a significant amount of resource materials, have a specific team dedicated to administering them, and feature role play in training programmes to allow individuals to assimilate and contextualise the issues the campaign seeks to address. Bystander campaigns, however, are less regimented and do not rely upon role play to achieve their goals
  6. data on the efficacy and impact of bystander and gatekeeper campaigns is not always made publicly available or accessible to third parties (i.e., anyone outside the circle of individuals who create and manage the campaigns themselves)
  7. consideration of the ‘Werther Effect’ is likely to deter railway administrators and operators around the world from publicly acknowledging suicides on their networks or creating targeted campaigns to address them i.e., our research reveals that the rail industry in Great Britain is a rare exception
  8. bystander campaigns that appear to have the most immediate impact share five main similarities:
    • a strong media presence across all platforms
    • a website that acts as an anchor and repository for campaign material, as well as providing useful supplementary information e.g., the clear and effective signposting to support services
    • strong visual imagery and a short supporting video(s)
    • offer helpful options/solutions
    • a degree of ‘scientific’/data driven rigour behind them, providing justification/the reasoning behind the campaign
  9. at present, the most accessible elements of bystander and gatekeeper campaigns are supporting videos that focus on identifying when and how to make an intervention. This report, however, highlights how there are two additional elements that historically have been covered in far less detail – even by campaigns with associated websites – that require closer consideration:
    • how – in the immediate aftermath of an intervention – the intervening bystander can enlist others to bring the event to a satisfactory conclusion
    • what type and level of support is available to the bystander who makes the intervention following its conclusion, because intervening for some can be a harrowing and traumatic experience.

Bystander Marketing Campaigns, Critical Literature Review, Byron Keating, Ryan McAndrew, Shasha Wang, Queensland University of Technology, December 2021

The review presents evidence in relation to 17 academic studies and industry reports of such campaigns conducted over the past two decades (2001-2021). Adopting a systematic approach, this report outlines key findings in relation to the issues investigated in these studies, the target populations for the different campaigns, type of campaign and media used, and where data was available, the outcomes associated with these campaigns.

Related research is available here.

See also this Australian research which recommends bystander education and training about common behaviours.

Updated 12 January 2024