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Article: How can we support unpaid carers to reduce the risk of suicide?

An NSPA blog article by Rachael Swann, CEO of Grassroots Suicide Prevention

In this blog we hear from NSPA Steering Group member and CEO of Grassroots Suicide Prevention, Rachael Swann about the importance of suicide prevention for unpaid carers.
Here, Rachael explores the role of unpaid carers, recent evidence indicating carers are a high-risk group for suicide, and what we can do to support them.

Who is an unpaid carer?

An unpaid carer is someone who provides unpaid care and support to a family member or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health condition, addiction, or who needs extra help as they grow older. It isn’t someone who volunteers or is employed to provide support.
In the UK, there are five million family caregivers, and their unpaid labour contributes £445 million to the economy every day. Research shows as many as one in five children and young people are young carers with a further 600,000 hidden young carers not receiving any support.
Although for many carers, caring can have positive and rewarding aspects, it can also take a serious toll. Carers are known to experience higher than average rates of physical and mental illness, social isolation, and financial distress

What does the research say?

A recent review found evidence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in carers from low-middle-, and high-income countries, including the UK. The review also found that suicidal thoughts and behaviours were not unique to a specific illness or disability. There was evidence of suicidal ideation and attempts in people caring for family members with cancer, dementia, HIV, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy.
Although there is a growing body of evidence on suicide risk in carers, it has been paid little attention in policy and practice.

What can we do to help professionals who are supporting unpaid carers?

Associate Professor Siobhan O’Dwyer has been leading research on suicide and homicide-suicide in carers for the last 12 years.
Professor O’Dwyer says: “Health and social care professionals are regularly encountering carers at-risk of suicide, but many of them lack the knowledge and resources to identify and support these carers. With as many as 1 in 6 carers contemplating suicide, and 1 in 10 saying they’ve already attempted suicide, it is vital that professionals can recognise the warning signs and are given the skills to respond to carers in crisis.”
There is a national network of carer organisations working to ensure that unpaid carers are heard, feel valued and have access to the support, advice and resources they need to live a fulfilling life alongside caring. To find out about your local carers support organisation visit

If you are supporting someone who is an unpaid carer, here are some helpful first steps you can take to help support someone:

• Create a safe and non-judgmental space for the carer to express their feelings and concerns. Encourage them to talk about their struggles and listen attentively without interrupting, dismissing their concerns or offering solutions right away.

• Let them know that their feelings are valid and that it’s understandable for them to experience stress, overwhelm, or despair.

• If they express feelings of hopelessness, of being trapped in an unbearable situation or say things like “I can’t take this any longer”, they might be at risk of suicide. In that case you need to ask them clearly whether they are having thoughts of suicide.

• Use open-ended questions and invite them to tell the story behind their pain. Listen patiently and look out for an increase in ambivalence about wanting to die. If this happens, you will then need to help them take steps to get assistance and support. If they express immediate plans or intent to end their life, contact emergency services.

• If possible, and they are not in immediate danger, help them develop a safety plan, for example by using the free Grassroots’ Stay Alive app. This will help them identify warning signs, coping strategies, emergency contacts, and steps to take when they are in crisis. The Stay Alive app also contains a list of all the support services available.

• If appropriate and with their consent, help them reach out to someone who could support them, such as friends, family or a neighbour.

• Whenever possible, offer your assistance with practical tasks and put them in touch with support groups for carers in the area.
• Let them know that you are there for them and available to talk. Sometimes, just having someone who listens without judgment can make a significant difference.

The Grassroots Suicide Prevention Real Talk film is a great resource to help you remember these first steps.

Professor O’Dwyer is currently partnering with Grassroots Suicide Prevention to develop a new carer-focused suicide prevention training programme to support health and social care professionals who encounter carers at risk of suicide. If you would like to find out about more, please email


• If you or someone you are working with needs to talk, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123 or you can text SHOUT to 85258

Carers UK provides expert information, advice and support for unpaid carers.

About The Author

Rachael Swann NSPA
Rachael Swann

Rachael started her career as a solicitor before moving into senior leadership and non-executive roles in Higher Education, charity and housing sectors and is currently the Chief Executive of Grassroots Suicide Prevention.
Grassroots Suicide Prevention’s vision is ‘A future where more lives are saved from suicide’ and we empower people to help saves lives from suicide through connecting, educating, and campaigning nationally.
Rachael has specialised in providing VCSE services to a range of diverse communities including; homelessness, young carers and carers supporting those with a learning disability, autism, parent carers, life-limiting illness, mental health issues and drugs and alcohol misuse. Rachael’s experience has included leading organisations through periods of change, new ventures in the UK and overseas, external quality assessment, restructures, and major IT projects.
You can get in touch with Rachael by email at