Updated protocols tackling suicide on the River Foyle have underlined the need for close interagency co-operation and vigilance against the risk of contagion, writes Kevin Mullan.
A new report entitled ‘Interagency Protocols in Support of the Search Process for a missing person in the River Foyle within the Derry City limits: September 2018’ provides comprehensive guidelines for organisations involved in suicide prevention and recovery efforts in the city.
These include the PSNI, Foyle Search & Rescue, the NI Fire and Rescue Service, Derry City & Strabane District Council, the Western Health & Social Care Trust, the Public Health Agency, the NI Ambulance Service, the Harbour Commission, the Loughs Agency and the City Centre Initiative.
In a joint foreword the chief executives of DC&SDC and the PHA, John Kelpie and Valerie Watts, outline the need for what they describe as a ‘living document’ necessary to address what has become a sadly recurrent issue in Derry.
“Reducing the risks of suicide in the population is a key priority for statutory, voluntary, community and independent sectors. As part of our collective efforts it is important that we are prepared to also address unusual and demanding situations.
“Every crisis situation is different and requires a bespoke response from a range of agencies. The risk of death by suicide on the River Foyle is one such situation, and requires a clear and well-co-ordinated response,” write Mr. Kelpie and Mrs. Watts.
They point out how the implementation of a Community Response Plan – co-ordinated to address the immediate risk of contagion or associated suicide deaths following a recent death - identified the need for clear protocols that can by followed by all.
They believe it is essential there is “clarity about the roles and responsibilities of each agency; clear definitions and rationale for actions; a means to ensure the timely exchange of accurate and appropriate information; appropriate support and advice given to those most directly affected and those involved in the search process; appropriate action put in place to address public safety and reduce the risk of contagion and further loss of life.
“Ideally, there would be no need for such protocols. However, should they be activated at any time in the future, partners have committed to enact these arrangements which will bring a clarity of purpose and direction that we trust will contribute to reducing deaths on the river as a result of suicide. We commend them to you as a further step in tackling suicide in our community,” they state.
Across 27 pages the protocols, in large part, deal with the logistics of the emergency response and the roles of the various agencies whenever someone is reported to have entered the river.
However, the protocols also underline the need to support those most affected by suicide, the families.
“It is critical that there is clarity of communication and contact with the family, from the initial contact through to post recovery support.
“This will ensure that the family are supported throughout the process, kept informed about developments and reduce the risk of possible actions which could be deemed as detrimental to the search operation or put other individuals at risk,” the document stipulates.
Typically, a PSNI Family Liaison Officer (FLO) will formally notify a family that a search of the river is focused on their missing loved one.
During an initial meeting they’ll be advised that the search will be led by the PSNI and supported by FS&R in the first instance.
“Within eight hours of the family being notified of the search operation having been activated the family should be visited again by the FLO and, with the consent of the family, they would be accompanied by a volunteer from FS&R.
“The purpose of this joint visit will be to help clarify the search activities and demonstrate that a range of agencies are collaborating in the process. It will also be an opportunity to enlist the family’s support for the formal process,” the protocols state.
One of the main issues highlighted in the document, one which is mentioned again and again, is the risk of contagion in the immediate aftermath of a death by suicide.
The protocols stress that the wider community has a role to play in minimising the risk of other vulnerable people taking their own lives.
It suggests high-profile gatherings and searches along the riverfront may act as attractors to vulnerable people and that they should be discouraged where possible.
“There are potentially serious risks to public safety in the convening of any public gatherings on or near the river. If the family require access to a venue to bring people together, then the local agencies will work with them to facilitate a safe and appropriate venue.
“Running any unauthorised search operations is both a risk to public safety and will potentially impede the work of the official search and recovery operation.
“The high visibly of such search operations also heightens the risk of ‘copycat’ suicidal behaviour, especially in close proximity to where the missing person entered the water, e.g. the bridges and river banks. Individuals who may be extremely vulnerable are usually attracted to such gatherings and to places associated with the loss of an individual,” it says.
Equally, the protocols, which have been endorsed by all of the aforementioned statutory agencies, warn against the erection of memorials for exactly the same reason.
“Sometimes relatives want to erect a notice or some form of recognition of their loved one, however it is strongly advised against such action.
“There is clear evidence that the presence of memorials increases the risk of further suicidal behaviour and tends to attract the attention of extremely vulnerable individuals.
“If such memorials are erected, in the interest of public safety, the family will be approached by PSNI and asked to have the memorial removed.
“If a memorial is erected on public property without permission then it should be remembered that authorities have the right to remove the memorial without anyone else’s consent,” it says.
The Lifeline helpline is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Anyone of any age living in the North can call the helpline for free on 0808 808 8000 if they are experiencing distress or despair.