Suicidal Doesn't Always Look Suicidal
This week I talk to my son, Louis Lunts, about his new work for CALM. Hi Louis. Tell us about the campaign you’ve launched.
We’ve been working with a charity called CALM to launch an important, eye-opening campaign called The Last Photo. CALM stands for the Campaign Against Living Miserably and their remit is every bit as ambitious as it sounds. They’re the UK’s leading voice for suicide prevention. They offer lifesaving services for the suicidal and much-needed support for the bereaved. But just as importantly, they campaign to make sure suicide stays on the national agenda where it belongs. Their last major campaign - launched by my agency adam&eveDDB in 2018 - was called Project 84. It captured huge international attention and led to the May administration appointing the world’s first Minister for Suicide Prevention: proof if ever it was needed that campaigning works. Fast forward 4 years and 26,000 people in Britain have died by suicide. 125 people every week. With the country emerging from years of lockdowns and entering a crushing cost of living crisis, that number is only expected to rise. At the same time, the Johnson government has quietly removed the ministerial position along with their paltry budget. An urgent conversation about suicide prevention is needed now more than ever. But how do you restart that conversation in a post-pandemic world in which 125 deaths a week suddenly feels much smaller? You embark on a new kind of campaign. One that swaps the horrifying figures of Project 84, for the human faces of real people lost to suicide. That focuses not just on creating awareness, but inciting action. And most importantly, that places the emphasis for suicide prevention not on politicians, but on people all up and down the country talking about suicide openly, unreservedly, without fear or shame. So earlier this week, we launched The Last Photo. Not just raising awareness, but also empowering the public to help by tackling a deeply-held misunderstanding about suicidal behaviour. The problem: people tend to think they already know what suicidal looks like - reclusiveness, crying, silence - and if they don't see those traits in someone they're worried about, they hesitate to intervene. In reality, suicidal behaviour takes many forms. People can seem happy just moments before taking their own lives. The heartbreaking words CALM hear most often from the families left behind: “we had no idea”. The Last Photo draws the nation’s attention to that fact in order to equip us all to prevent suicide without waiting for the so-called ‘signs’ to appear. So on Monday 20th June (supposedly the happiest day of the year) we revealed a huge installation of 50 unbranded, smiling portraits on the South Bank. Visitors were confronted with photos of people living what appeared to be rich, happy, care-free lives. And for two days, that’s all they saw until… … Wednesday 22nd June, when the true nature of the experience was revealed live on ITV. The message: these are the last photos of people who later took their own lives, which proves that suicidal doesn’t always look suicidal.
This reveal kicked off CALM’s biggest ever campaign. QR codes at the exhibition drove people to a dedicated website, where they could engage more deeply with the stories of those featured and pick up practical tools for prevention.
A national advertising drive including an extremely moving film was rolled out across TV, Cinemas, Outdoor, Print, Social and Digital Display. Dozens of celebrities joined the movement, including Chris Evans who happened to pass the exhibition on his morning run. A total of 769 press titles covered the campaign.
The goal was to restart a national conversation about suicide prevention across the country: in homes, in the pub, in the media. In that goal it’s been even more successful than we’d hoped, and the movement has only just begun.
Is there a reason why it’s being launched now? (I.e. rather than 2+ years ago?)
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that mental health is reaching all-time lows while the cost of living is reaching all-time highs. Perhaps more surprising is that suicide deaths haven’t yet started to increase, and nor would we expect them to. Yet. When you look at data from the 2008-9 financial crash, you notice that suicides don’t peak during a crisis. They peak 2 or 3 years afterwards. CALM’s hypothesis is that rather than driving an immediate response, catastrophic periods like this create the conditions - home repossessions, job losses, divorces - that set people on a path to suicide. But crucially, that journey is not inevitable. It’s entirely preventable if we all stay on the front foot and stand ready to intervene. So the right time for the conversation about suicide prevention isn’t when the suicide rate climbs to its highest. It’s right now.
You’ve obviously had to do your research. What have you learned that has most surprised you?
What shocked me most was how common the insight really is. We’re all used to the idea that people hide their emotions, but I never fully appreciated that people often appear happier right before committing suicide because they’ve found a perverse sense of peace in their resolve to finally do it. That insight haunted me – still does. It just goes to show how wrong we are to wait for the ‘signs’ before checking in. I’ve also become aware of how difficult it is to start a conversation about suicide in particular. Mainstream culture has made great strides in talking about mental health, but that hasn’t trickled through to the specific stigma around suicide. You might think it’s easy. It isn’t. Honestly, try it for yourself today. Start by asking someone those more generic mental wellbeing questions: How are you doing? Are you OK? Are you sure? Both you and they will probably find this conversation perfectly natural. Then ask if they’ve ever thought about suicide. They’ll be taken aback. You’ll feel you’ve overstepped. Your cheeks will flush, your throat close, your voice shake. It really isn’t easy but the more we do it, the easier it’ll get. We think we’re safe and enlightened because we’re happy to have the mental health conversation. But this campaign has taught me that this isn’t the same as the suicide conversation, which is just as important and even more urgent. We all know someone who has been impacted by suicide. Have you had any personal experience you are willing to share?
I lost an aunt to suicide when I was very young. In a way I was lucky not to fully understand what it meant, but I saw the effect it had – still has – on the rest of my family. As you say, we’ve all had some experience with suicide so this campaign really is for everyone. CALM has traditionally focused on men and statistically, suicide is significantly higher among males than females. Would you tell us why? CALM used to focus on male suicide, but not now. You’re right that the top line statistics paint a predominantly male picture. In the UK, 75% of suicides are male and it’s the biggest killer of men under 45. But look beyond those headline stats and you see a more nuanced story. Men may be more likely to die by suicide, but women are more likely to experience it. In England, young women are 57% more likely to attempt suicide than young men. They’re also 50% more likely to self-harm, which the data shows to be one of the main pre-cursors to suicidal behaviour. Not enough is understood about why, though it’s clear that domestic abuse plays a role and it’s not always a result of poor mental health. After Project 84’s massive impact in 2018, CALM quickly realised they needed to expand their purview to a gender inclusive service. Suicide isn't just a male issue. It's an everybody issue. So it was crucial to us that women were included in The Last Photo.
From all you’ve learned, what advice would you give someone going through this?
Two words: start conversations. And that applies to everyone. If you’re feeling suicidal right now, start a conversation. It can be with a loved one but you may find it easier to speak to an understanding stranger. CALM’s phone line is on 0800 58 58 58 and it’s open from 5pm to midnight every day. Need to talk outside of those hours? Call the Samaritans on 116 123. If you’ve had suicidal thoughts but feel you’re past it, start a conversation. You may not feel you need urgent help but naming those thoughts is a crucial step in preventing their return. If you think you might know someone who’s had suicidal thoughts – and trust me, you do – start a conversation. It might not be comfortable but it may well save their life.
And if you care about the issue more broadly, start a conversation. Share CALM’s message on social media, proactively raise the issue with your friends, write to your local MP. Suicide affects every single one of us. It flourishes in the dark and it hates the sunlight. So start conversations.