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Rapporteur report

Professor Ella Arensman

30 January 2017

Data-driven research to help prevent suicide and self-harm

Watch Professor Arensman's presentation on You Tube at the link below

Quick summary: 

  • HRB-supported research is helping us to understand the prevalence and patterns of self-harm and suicide in Ireland 
  • Datasets have already helped to make supports available in emergency departments for people who have self-harmed 
  • Research is ongoing to see if uncovering geographical clusters of self-harm and suicide can contribute to early intervention and prevention. 

Suicide and self-harm have devastating effects on individuals, on families and on entire communities. Could data about suicide and self-harm provide a means of identifying people at risk and directing support their way? 

Ireland has come a long way in research about suicide and self-harm, but there are still major gaps to close, according to Professor Ella Arensman, Director of Research with the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF) and  Research Professor with the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College Cork, Ireland.  

Around 550 suicides are recorded annually in Ireland, and looking back at trends since 2004, we see peaks in the time of recession. ‘In a relatively short space of time, there was increase of 15% in male suicides’, said Professor Arensman, who explained that socioeconomic and mental health factors as well as austerity measures seemed to be involved. 

As well as using figures from the Central Statistics Office, The National Suicide Foundation links with coroners, bereaved family members and healthcare professionals to gather data about suicide in Ireland and they also maintain a National Self-Harm Registry, that has identified around 11,000 cases of self-harm presenting in emergency departments in Ireland each year. 

On top of that, research co-funded by the HRB has identified around 60,000 cases of ‘hidden’ self-harm where people have not presented to the healthcare system. 

The datasets deliver a stark wake-up call, but they also offer the opportunity to anticipate when and where resources and increased capacity might be needed. 

Professor Arensman commented on how the data identified peak times of alcohol self harm on public holidays or one or two days afterwards. ‘So in terms of capacity allocation, we know what to do’, she said. ‘Registry data has helped us to identify emergency departments with high levels of self-harm patients, and on this basis we were able to convince the HSE to allocate so called self-harm nurses’.  

The good news is that these days a high proportion of people presenting to emergency departments with self-harm are assessed and referred, noted Professor Arensman, but there is still a significant number of people who have self-harmed and who are still leaving without the proper support. 

Other areas of concern are levels of self-harm among people who are homeless, and the need for a pro-active approach to supporting families after a suicide has occurred, she added. 

Professor Arensman is also hoping to find out if it is possible to verify if geographically determined clusters of self-harm are a warning sign of a potential suicide cluster in a region, and thus be able to allocate resources to help prevent those suicides.  ‘This is one of the key elements we are going to approach’, she said. ‘Based on high quality treatment and preventive studies in recent years, we now know how we can support and help people to change their lives’.

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