Intervening to Prevent a Suicide in a Public Place: A Qualitative Study of Effective Interventions by Lay People


Objectives: Many suicides take place in public locations, usually involving jumping from high places or use of transport networks. Previous research has largely focused on the effectiveness of physical barriers at frequently used locations. There have been no studies of human intervention to prevent suicides in public places. The aim of this study was to identify the core components of an effective intervention by a member of the public.

Design and methods: We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with people who have either been prevented by a stranger from taking their own life in a public location (n=12) or intervened to prevent a stranger from taking their own life in a public location (n=21). Collectively, the two groups narrated 50 incidents of suicide rescue. We analysed interview transcripts using inductive thematic analysis.

Results: Suicidal people typically displayed no visible distress, describing themselves as being dissociated or ‘in a bubble’. Intervention was seen to involve three main tasks: ‘bursting the bubble’ (reconnecting with self, others and everyday world); moving to a safer location, and summoning help. We show how interveners accomplished these tasks in a range of ways, using both verbal and non-verbal communication and different degrees of restraint.

Conclusions: This is the first empirical study to examine the role of passing strangers in preventing suicides in public places. It shows that no specialist skills are needed. Interveners were ordinary people, distinguished only by a high level of social awareness, combined with a readiness for social action. The findings also suggest that people do not need a script and should not be afraid of saying ‘the wrong thing.’ What interveners said was much less important than how they made the suicidal person feel, namely safe, connected and validated (‘I matter’). Interveners did this simply by being themselves, responding with authenticity, calmness and compassion. Members of the public need to be encouraged to recognise and reach out to those who may be at risk of suicide in public locations, but should be prepared for a prolonged and intense encounter that may leave them with troubling emotions.

Owens C, Derges J, Abraham CIntervening to prevent a suicide in a public place: a qualitative study of effective interventions by lay peopleBMJ Open 2019;9:e032319. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032319
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