The Research Behind Suicide Prevention Campaign #YouCanTalk

The findings from a PhD research project that received funding from Australian Rotary Health have been used to inform national social media suicide prevention campaign #YouCanTalk.

Ian Scott PhD Scholarship recipient Dr Angela Nicholas from the University of Melbourne conducted five studies to better understand how people in the Australian community help the people close to them who are at risk of suicide.

The outcome of these studies was advice provided to Beyond Blue about the types of messages they should include in a national social media suicide prevention campaign aimed at family and friends of people at risk of suicide.

The #YouCanTalk campaign encourages people to have a conversation with a friend, family member or work colleague they’re concerned about.

Now being advertised through ten major Australian mental health organisations including Beyond Blue, Lifeline, headspace, and R U OK?, the campaign provides tips to consider if you are talking to someone who may be at risk of suicide.

These tips (found on the LifeinMind website) include:

  • It is better to reach out than avoid the person for fear of getting the conversation wrong. Experts generally agree that asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is unlikely to make the situation worse or ‘put ideas in their head’.
  • If you feel uncertain if your friend or loved one may be at risk, ask the question directly – “Are you having thoughts about suicide?”  and be prepared for the answer to be yes.
  • Make the person feel comfortable by listening without judgement or criticism and don’t try to ‘fix’ the problem or talk them out of suicide. Just listen.
  • Ensure they are safe for now and talk to the person about who else to involve so they can be supported. You can assist by connecting them with other supports and services.
  • Connect with resources and supports that are available to you to help you navigate the conversation.

In Angela’s research, she found that the most common suicide myths believed by Australians are that suicide happens without any warning and that there is a risk that asking someone about suicide can make them start thinking about it.

“A large minority of Australians still believe in some suicide myths, like that talking to someone can make them start thinking about it or that they will make things worse if they try to help. Believing in these myths can stop people from taking important suicide prevention actions,” Angela said.

Also, only 40% of Australians intended to ask, or actually did ask, direct questions about suicide risk, even when they knew the person they were helping was thinking about suicide.

“Asking direct questions, like ‘do you have a plan for suicide’ can help to open up the conversation and know what action to take.”

There are also some suicide prevention helping actions that Angela and her research team want Australians to take that they are not doing so often.

“These actions include asking direct questions about suicide and encouraging the person to get professional help. There are also some actions Australians are commonly taking that we advise against, such as trying to convince the person who is thinking about suicide that suicide is wrong.”

“We asked people who had been at risk of suicide what was the most unhelpful thing that someone has done when they tried to talk about their suicidal thoughts. It was really common for them to say that having someone dismiss them, not listen, not take their suicidal thoughts seriously, or blame them was really upsetting to them and made them feel worse. On the other hand, it is really important to understand that even if you feel like you don’t know exactly what the ‘right’ thing is to say or do, the most important thing you can do is just to listen, allow the person to talk and let them know you care and want to help. That is far more important than anything you might do ‘wrong’.”

Other key findings revealed that there are some population groups who tend to have poorer suicide prevention literacy. These groups include men, people aged over 60 years, and people who speak a language other than English at home.

“This means that these groups might need more suicide prevention education,” Angela said.

Angela’s PhD research was unique in the way that it tailored to a specific audience. By assessing the difference between best practice in suicide prevention and current suicide prevention, she was able to identify where suicide prevention actions most need to change.

Angela has published eight articles in peer-reviewed journals from the research conducted during her PhD:

  1. Nicholas A, Pirkis J, Reavley N. (In Press) What responses do people at risk of suicide find helpful and unhelpful from professionals and non-professionals. Journal of Mental Health.
  2. Nicholas A, Niederkrotenthaler T, Reavley N, Pirkis J, Spittal M. (2020) Belief in suicide prevention myths and its effect on helping: a nationally representative survey of Australian adults. BMC Psychiatry, 20(303). DOI: 1186/s12888-020-02715-9
  3. Nicholas A, Pirkis J, Jorm A, Spittal M, Reavley N. (2019) Helping actions given and received in response to suicide risk: Findings from an Australian nationally representative telephone survey. SSM-Population Health, 9, 9-. DOI: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2019.100483
  4. Nicholas A, Pirkis J, Rossetto A, Jorm A, Spittal M, Reavley N. (2019) Confidence and intentions to help a person at risk of suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12575 (EPub ahead of print)
  5. Nicholas A, Rossetto A, Jorm A, Pirkis J, Reavley N. Importance of messages for a suicide prevention media campaign: An expert consensus study. Crisis. EPub ahead of print (April 5 2018). DOI: 1027/0227-5910/a000517
  6. Maple M, Sandford R, Pirkis J, Reavley N, Nicholas A. (2019) Exposure to suicide in Australia: A representative random digit dial study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 259, 221-227
  7. Jorm A, Nicholas A, Pirkis J, Rossetto A, Fischer J-A; Reavley N. (2019) Quality of assistance provided by members of the Australian public to a person at risk of suicide: associations with training experiences and sociodemographic factors in a national survey. BMC Psychiatry 19: 68. DOI: 1186/s12888-019-2050-6
  8. Jorm A, Nicholas A, Rosetto A, Pirkis J, Reavely N. (2018) Associations of training to assist a suicidal person with subsequent quality of support: results from a national survey of the Australian public. BMC Psychiatry, 18: 132. DOI: 1186/s12888-018-1722-y

The #YouCanTalk campaign is just one example showing the value research has in ensuring suicide prevention campaigns are up to date and based on evidence and lived experience.

To support other important suicide prevention research like Angela’s, please donate on the Australian Rotary Health website today. 

Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or



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