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Article: What next for the NSPA & Suicide Prevention? Q&A with Ellen O’Donoghue

We caught up with Ellen O’Donoghue, CEO of suicide prevention charity James’ Place and new Co-Chair of the NSPA. In this article Ellen shares what drives her at work, her aspirations for the NSPA moving forward, and why she likes cold, windy days at the seaside.

Q: So, Ellen, why did you want to be Co-Chair of the NSPA?

A: For many reasons, suicide prevention is an area of huge personal passion, and I feel a real sense of privilege to have the chance to work with the NSPA to make change happen. I’ve been CEO of James’ Place for three and a half years now, supporting men in suicidal crisis with our clinical service and therapeutic support. I come into contact with lots of people who have been suicidal and who have lost people to suicide. Their stories really drive me forwards to want to do everything I can to prevent suicide and make it easier for suicidal people to seek and find help.  

My past work has been in both mental health and public health, and I see this role as an opportunity to bring all that experience together to benefit what the NSPA does. The NSPA is a huge force for good. I’m a big believer that collaboration is critical to improving suicide prevention because suicidality doesn’t happen in silos – it’s in the context of the whole of people’s lives. All the parts across prevention, crisis and postvention really need to work together and not only share knowledge and learning, but also take collective action and push the work forwards. 

Q. What emerging or growing areas of suicide prevention strategy most interest you, and what role do you think NSPA could play in that?

A:  Right now we’re seeing the all-too-familiar impact a financial downturn can have on mental health and suicidality.  Working with men at James’ Place we see how experiencing debt, job loss and relationship breakdown can be overwhelming and drive a crisis. In previous recessions our sector has seen a rise in the need for suicide prevention work and so we need to think about how the NSPA can contribute to this, and talk to our members about the action they would like to see taken, and how people might be held accountable for those actions.   

We also need to make sure that representation is at the heart of all the NSPA and its members are doing. Equity, Diversity & Inclusion means understanding that the way people experience suicide prevention services is impacted by how they experience society more widely.  We need to understand more of what suicidality looks like when people are facing other barriers. For example, if someone has experienced exclusion their whole lives, it’s a big leap to ask them now to trust services at the point of need, when they are most vulnerable. 

I’m keen for the NSPA to set up an EDI advisory group with diverse representation to accelerate progress in this area. My personal goal is to be able to hand over Co-Chair to someone from a marginalised background.  That would be a step forward for the NSPA. 

Q. What have you heard about the NSPA’s Lived Experience Network and how do you think the voices of people with lived experience can have an impact on suicide prevention?

A: I was really pleased when the NSPA set up the lived experience network and thought it was a brilliant thing to do.  It’s also been exceptionally well handled and done with real care, respect and dignity, putting people with lived experience at the heart of suicide prevention work.  As a sector we won’t have good provision and policy without lived experience.  Our goal is to make it normal and expected that people with lived experience are involved every step of the way, contributing all their skills and not just their experience with suicidality. 

Q. What do you think the biggest challenges and opportunities for growth for the NSPA are today?

A: As we move into the next chapter of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy, the NSPA’s role may well evolve too.  We can build on its foundation of being an alliance for learning and sharing to ensure we are action oriented and creating change on behalf of our members.  

We need to make sure NSPA continues to be more than a library of information.  It needs to be a place people can go for clear, unbiased, factual information, but can also develop to support members in translating that information into action.  

I see a gap sometimes in our sector between service provision, academic research and campaigning, and drawing those together is where the real value lies. The NSPA can work hard to ensure that gap is closed and help us all derive that value. 

Q. In your career or work so far, what are you the most proud of?

A: I’m proud to have an amazing, dedicated team at James’ Place. I felt real personal pride when we opened our second centre and to realise the vision of becoming a national force for good in suicide prevention, helping more people when they need it most.  

The points in my career that make me most proud is work that makes a change happen – whether that’s big or small. In previous roles, for example at Public Health England and Movember, I was really pleased to have the chance to work on programmes that have helped to better understand how people live, and what they need. Pushing for even small changes can make a big difference to people’s lives. 

Q. What do you most like to do when you’re away from work? What’s your idea of a perfect day?

A: When you ask that I picture a day with my family by the sea!  I have two children and I love walking along a cold wet beach with them, really blowing the cobwebs out and bringing myself back from the work I do, to my own life for a while.  I also find both reading and writing a real outlet, small quiet things that give me pleasure and connect me back with my own thoughts. 

About The Author

Ellen O’Donoghue is CEO of the suicide prevention charity James’ Place, which offers a clinical intervention to men in suicidal crisis. This follows her work as Head of Programmes at the Royal Foundation. Ellen was previously Director of Health Promotion Programmes at the Movember Foundation, leading on global programmes to improve men’s health. Prior to that she headed up the strategy and planning team for Public Health England’s world-leading behaviour change campaigns. She launched the strategic communications agency The Ladder Consultancy and set up and led the social marketing team at Forster Communications, working with clients including the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the King’s Fund. Ellen has been a governor of three schools, and a Trustee of a children’s heart charity and a drugs and alcohol charity. She recently completed her term as a member of the Mayor of London’s Child Obesity Taskforce and is now a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Group on Child Obesity.