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Tuesday, 27 August 2013 00:00

Preventing suicides at Beachy Head

by Paul Donovan

The number of desperate people travelling to this Sussex beauty spot to end their lives is growing. We need to find out what brings people to commit such acts of desperation

Beachy Head in Sussex is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. It marks the edge of the downland, where it meets the sea, reaching out as far as the eye can see.

The cliff is a well-known beauty spot with the chalk escarpment surging up from the beach to a 535-feet height above sea level.

Many will immediately recognise Beachy Head from the pictures of the iconic red and white striped lighthouse which sits just offshore, dwarfed by the cliffs overhead.

Sitting on the cliff looking out, it is a fantastic sight to see the birds swooping in and out of the chalk face. Below, the canoeists look like ants navigating their way around rocks amid the sea green setting.

But this fantastic place also has a darker side.

While it takes many people's emotions to new highs, for others the opposite is true. It brings about a depression that for some sadly ends in death.

For Beachy Head has also been a favourite site over the centuries for people to come and commit suicide. Thirty-one people died here in 2012, 19 so far this year. It is estimated that on average 20 people a year die at Beachy Head.

I've visited Beachy Head many times over the years, looking out in wonder at the views, then descending through the chalk-based downland to the bustling life of the sea front.

It was the recent death of James Bond and Eastenders actor Paul Bhattacharjee that awakened my interest to return once again.

I read first of the death of the actor in the local Eastbourne press in July. On returning home to Wanstead in London I saw the same person in the local paper there.

It turned out that Bhattacharjee lived in Wanstead.

He had been rehearsing for a West End show then just disappeared one day, turning up on the East Sussex coast.

In the end it turned out that he had not died at Beachy Head but at a neighbouring cliff in Seaford. However, his death stirred me to wonder why.

He was a man seemingly with everything to live for but who decided he could take no more. No doubt his death also had some resonance with me at the time as I was only going between London and south coast that week due to the death of my own mother in Eastbourne.

Anyway, it spurred my return to Beachy Head.

The place has now become well geared up to saving lives.

Phone numbers for the Samaritans are posted outside the Beachy Head pub with a phone box for those who need help.

Staff at the pub itself advise if they see someone who looks as though they may have come up to end their lives.

However, the biggest lifesaver over the past decade has been the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (BHCT). From 2004 through to the end of July 2013 BHCT responded to 5,776 searches and incidents resulting in the rescue of 2,088 despondent people.

The chaplaincy began in 2004 with six volunteers. It now has around 20 staff, recently expanding due to the increasing calls on its work.

The chaplaincy carries out patrols 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It receives alerts about possible suicides from the police, pub and cafe staff and the public.

Team members are trained in negotiation techniques similar to those used by law enforcement agencies around the world to try to establish connections with despondent people at the cliff top and try to diffuse high levels of stress.

As well as talking to people who appear distressed and who look like they intend to jump, they also work with the coastguard and emergency services.

The avowed intention of the chaplaincy is to end suicides at Beachy Head. There were 771 searches on the cliffs by BHCT last year, with 305 despondent people saved.

The worrying thing at the moment is that the numbers of people coming to the beauty spot to try to end their lives appears to be on the rise.

Over recent months there has been an increase in numbers, with 512 searches to the end of July resulting in 211 people being saved.

In May there were 97 searches with 39 people saved. June saw the number of searches at 87 with 39 people saved and there were 76 searches in July with 32 people saved.

It follows on from the unusually high number of suicides last year. Then chaplaincy team director Ross Hardy told a local newspaper: "We have rescued something like 290 people this year.

"That would be a record. It is hard to say exactly why there has been such a rise but we do tend to see a peak in times of recession.

"People always have different reasons for their own personal circumstances, but financial troubles do tend to have an impact on other aspects on people's lives."

The chaplaincy team is concerned that insensitive media publicity surrounding deaths at Beachy Head also helps encourage people to come to attempt to take their lives.

They point to the Puttick family, who died on June 1 2009.

The case, where parents Neil and Kazumi killed themselves at Beachy Head after their five-year-old son Sam died of meningitis, drew international media attention.

In the month that followed there was a surge in the number of people coming to the beauty spot seeking to end their lives. In the week that followed the BHCT conducted 33 searches, saving 15 despondent people. Similar patterns have been noted with other high-profile cases.

It is difficult to know how this can be changed. The media will cover the story. If the chaplaincy refuses to talk to the papers the coverage may end up even more sensational.

What is needed is greater understanding of what drives people to the point where they are prepared to take their lives. Depression and the underlying pressures of society no doubt play a part and a greater understanding is needed of these issues in the public at large.

The chaplaincy is clearly doing great work and deserves all the support it can get, both financial and spiritual. The challenges are growing.

The real positive note from the story is the number of people saved by the BHCT over the past decade who have gone on to put their lives back together and live happy, fulfilling lives.

It is they who are testimony to the importance of this work.

  • For more of Paul Donovan's writing see www.paulfdonovan.blogspot.com.

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