Wigan mum who lost brother to suicide days before starting mental health degree hopes to help others

Will Smith took his own life just days before his sister was due to start a masters in mental health studies Credit: Family photo

A former teacher whose brother took his own life just days before she was due to start a Masters in mental health studies says she hopes her research will prevent other suicides.

Nina Smith, from Wigan, was two weeks away from beginning her course at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire, when her brother Will died.

She has now devoted her studies to looking into how schools can teach suicide prevention - something the 3 Dads Walking are calling to be put on the National Curriculum.

30-year-old Will Smith took his own life after suffering with his mental health Credit: Family photo

Will was 30 when he took his own life in August 2021. His daughter Paige was just five at the time.

Nina says his death had a devastating effect on all their lives.

"I was so excited, going back to university, I was going to do this suicide prevention research - it was like a dream come true," she said.

"And then I got this knock on the door, telling me he had taken his own life.

"And every time I hear about another suicide I'm transported back to that knock at the door.

"When I went to mum's house and she was on the floor, she was screaming and the conversation I had to have with my five-year-old niece and I had to be the one to tell her her daddy had died."

Will Smith took his own life in August 2021, his daughter Paige was five at the time Credit: Family photo

Nina vowed to continue her studies and was accepted for a Churchill Fellowship where she is currently looking into how schools can effectively incorporate suicide prevention into the curriculum, with the goal of informing policy and practice in the UK.

Nina said: “As a former teacher I have seen that the number of children struggling with their mental health is increasing and the severity of that mental ill health is also increasing.

“When my brother died I didn’t know the signs to look out for and if I had I might have been able to help.

"I want to do something to help now."

Nina’s Fellowship proposal was inspired by school-based research carried out during her time at Edge Hill while studying MSc Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health, supported by a bursary provided by Everton in the Community, the official charity of Everton Football Club.

“The girls I worked with were all known to self-harm and many had attempted to take their own lives," she said. "They had it really tough at home and needed help.

“I want to find answers to the questions this work raised: what could schools do to support our young people and what support do schools need in order to do this.”


Four out of five individuals considering suicide give some sign of their intentions, either verbally or behaviourally.

Suicide: What are the warning signs to look out for?

Four out of five individuals considering suicide give some sign of their intentions, either verbally or behaviourally.

Each tab below has signs to look out for in a person considering suicide.

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Suicide threats

Almost everyone who attempts or completes suicide has given warning signs through their words or behaviours. Do not ignore any suicide threats.

The following statements may indicate serious suicidal feelings:

  • “I’d be better off dead.”

  • “I won’t be bothering you much longer.”

  • “You’ll be better off without me around.”

  • “I hate my life.”

  • “I am going to kill myself.”

Suicide threats are not always verbal.

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Depression

Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide attempts. Mental or addictive disorders are associated with 90% of suicide.

One in 10 youth suffer from mental illness serious enough to be impaired, yet fewer than 20% receive treatment.

Depression can be exhibited in many ways including the following which are detailed in more depth:

  • Sudden, abrupt changes in personality

  • Expressions of hopelessness and despair

  • Declining grades and school performance

  • Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed

  • Increased irritability and aggressiveness

  • Withdrawal from family, friends and relationships

  • Lack of hygiene

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits

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Anger, increased irritability

Recent research has identified a connection between interpersonal violence and suicide.

Suicide is associated with fighting for both males and females, across all ethnic groups, and for youth living in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

You should be concerned if a friend is exhibiting unusually irritable behaviour.

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Lack of interest

You should be concerned if a friend suddenly starts to lose interest in sports or hobbies that they used to enjoy.

  • The captain of the football team no longer wants to be on the team.

  • A dancer decides to leave the team because she does not like it anymore.

  • Your music-loving friend decides to quit the band.

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Sudden increase or decrease in appetite

  • A friend of yours that typically eats more than anyone you know barely eats or skips lunch.

  • Someone eating noticeably more without adding any additional exercise to their daily routine.

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Sudden changes in appearance

  • He/She is not dressing as they typically would.

  • Lack of personal hygiene.

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Dwindling academic performance

  • A model student suddenly failing classes or not turning in assignments.

  • Lack of concern for school, classes, and grades.

  • Grades dropping suddenly

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Preoccupation with death and suicide

This can be seen throughout their:

  • Essays and writings about death

  • Poems about death

  • Artwork or drawings depicting death

  • Social media posts and comments

  • Talking a lot about death or dying

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Previous suicide attempts

Youth who have attempted suicide are at risk to do it again.

In fact, they are eight times more likely than youth who have never attempted suicide to make another suicide attempt.

  • One out of three suicide deaths is not the individual’s first attempt.

  • The risk for completing suicide is more than 100 times greater during the first year after an attempt.

  • Take any instance of deliberate self-harm seriously.

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Nina's research also reveals that teachers are currently struggling to cope with an escalating problem of poor mental health in schools.

Nina said: "Teachers said they were increasingly having to try to support pupils who were self-harming, even attempting suicide on school property, without adequate training or support from outside agencies.

"No matter how hard they were trying, they felt like they just couldn't give the support to their pupils that they needed, and they were going home worrying about their pupil's mental health, and wondering would they get an awful phone call in the morning.

"So they were just left to do their best, which without qualifications, funding and resources, could only ever provide so much help for those pupils."

Her research is looking at best practice across the world, and she has just returned from Melbourne, Australia where she's been assessing how the programmes already being used there, are working.

One of the programmes she has been observing is Multi-Modal Approach to Preventing Suicide in Schools, otherwise known as MAPSS - which is the same programme that is currently being trialled at six schools in Liverpool as part of a groundbreaking study by John Moores University.

Nina’s passion for change has also attracted the support of key suicide prevention campaigners 3 Dads Walking who are lobbying to make suicide prevention a compulsory part of the UK school curriculum.

Meanwhile at Edge Hill University - the biggest provider of teacher training in the North West - they are exploring how to embed Nina's findings into their current training of teacher students.

Professor Smith, Director of Edge Hill’s new Centre for Mental Health, Sport and Physical Activity Research, and Dr O’Keeffe said: “Alongside Edge Hill’s Outstanding Ofsted rating for initial teacher education and world leading impactful research in mental health, Nina’s drive and insight will be invaluable as we continue to focus on how we can support schools, teachers, young people and their communities.

“We want to empower people like Nina, with lived experience of mental health challenges, to support the work of the Centre and Faculty of Education so that it continues to have a real, positive impact on policy and practice in this field.”


Should suicide prevention be taught in schools? We ask the question in our podcast, From the North

Worried about mental health?

CALM

CALM, or the Campaign Against Living Miserably, runs a free and confidential helpline and webchat – open from 5pm to midnight every day, for anyone who needs to talk about life’s problems.

It also supports those bereaved by suicide, through the Support After Suicide Partnership (SASP).

  • Phone their helpline: 0800 585858 (Daily, 5pm to midnight)

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James’ Place

Suicide prevention centre in Liverpool offering life-saving support to men in suicidal crisis.

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Mind

Mind is a mental health charity which promotes the views and needs of people with mental health issues.

It provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.

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PAPYRUS

For practical, confidential suicide prevention help and advice you can contact PAPYRUS HOPELINE247 on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org

Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK. PAPYRUS aims to reduce the number of young people who take their own lives by breaking down the stigma around suicide and equipping people with the skills to recognise and respond to suicidal behaviour.

HOPELINE247 is the charity’s confidential 24 hour helpline service providing practical advice and support to young people with thoughts of suicide and anyone concerned about a young person who may have thoughts of suicide.

HOPELINE247 is staffed by trained professionals, offering a telephone, text and email service.

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Samaritans

Samaritans is an organisation offering confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.

  • Phone 116 123 (a free 24 hour helpline)

  • Email: jo@samaritans.org

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YoungMinds

YoungMinds is a resource with information on child and adolescent mental health, but also offers services for parents and professionals.

It is the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people's mental health, and wants to make sure all young people can get the mental health support they need, when they need it

  • YoungMinds Textline - Text YM to 85258

  • Phone Parents' helpline 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am - 4pm)

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