NEWS15 March 2018

Researching suicide on the railways

Impact 2018 News

UK – Researching suicide is a complex and difficult area for researchers. At the Impact conference held by MRS, Robin Pharoah, director of insight at Future Agenda, discussed the company’s work with Network Rail on suicide prevention.


Taking a traditional ethnographic approach to understanding suicide on the railway is difficult – it’s very hard to identify the communities to speak to because the issue impacts all communities, said Pharoah.

One approach is to undertake suicide archaeology, which involves analysing individual suicide cases to gain insights on motivations. The problem with such a method, according to Pharoah, is that no case is simple, and this way of researching prevented the researchers from identifying patterns.

“The more you delve into each individual case, the more complex the reasons are,” said Pharoah. “Suicide archaeology takes away our ability to see larger patterns even as we get closer to individual reasons.”

Of the main approaches to understanding suicide trends, sociological perspectives focus on large macro scale policies impacting suicide rate, while the psychological approach focuses on individualised mental health interventions. The researchers decided to take a third approach: an anthropological one.

By looking at the work of Munster and Broz, who apply anthropological perspectives to suicide and have observed how the method and culture is of significance, Pharoah and his colleagues could find an answer to what their ‘object of study’ should be. Rather than thinking about the individual reasons leading people towards suicide, they looked at why the railway was appearing in people’s ‘ideation menus’ – i.e. an option for ending their lives.

“This is a very anthropological way of thinking about it, and allows us to answer what the object of study is,” he said. “Instead of producing claims about the causality of suicide, the ethnographic approach substitutes analytical explanations of suicide through the study of popular discourse about causality. This completely changes the way we collect data and the stories we collect from people who were suicidal.”

This helped the researchers to understand the significance of different statements. “The question for us became not why someone would take their lives on the railway, but how does the railway as a method appear in their list of options for taking their life when they are suicidal.”

The researchers spoke to people who had previously experienced suicidal thoughts to identify shared patterns of language and ideas about the railway. They looked at these as a popular discourse rather than as a way of understanding individual causality, and identify patterns in the language used to describe suicide in the railway.

Intervention work has an important role in Network Rail’s approach to suicide prevention. The company’s ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ bystander campaign with Samaritans, launched in November 2017, took learnings from previous work the company had done with staff and extended those to customers, said Ian Stevens, programme manager, suicide prevention at Network Rail.