Suicide Prevention Bristol: An inside look at the work of a life-saving charity

While the city sleeps, the charity’s volunteers are patrolling cliff edges and motorway bridges

Walking past a small office block in Warmley, you’d never register that the unassuming building houses a lifeline for Bristolians in their darkest moments.

While the city sleeps, volunteers from Suicide Prevention Bristol (SPB) are out patrolling cliff edges and motorway bridges looking out for people at risk of suicide.

In their high-vis vests and armed with torches, these selfless volunteers are literal beacons of hope for those wondering whether or not to make this night their last.

An SPB patrol team on the streets of Bristol.

On average, 40 people die of suicide every year in Bristol, the second highest rate per city in the country.

But SPB believes that a friendly face and a listening ear can have powerful results.

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The charity receives no government funding, relying on donations and the selflessness of its volunteers, who are all trained in crisis intervention.

If you’ve ever been curious about SPB’s life-saving work, BristolWorld visited the charity’s HQ in Warmley to find out more.

‘It’s our job to bring people back to themselves’

Kitty Lunness is only 20, but devotes most of her spare time to SPB as a patrol team leader while holding down a busy day job with South Western Ambulance Service.

A SPB patrol vehicle.

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Like most of the volunteers on the charity’s books, she has been directly impacted by mental illness, having struggled with suicidal thoughts as a teenager.

She said: “Working with South Western Ambulance, I’ve come across high numbers of people attempting to take their own life.

“Promoting good mental health and having access to services is so important, so when I heard about the charity I knew I had to get involved.

Kitty Lunness gives up many of her weekends to SPB while holding down a busy day job with South Western Ambulance Service.

Depending on her availability, Kitty will normally volunteer two nights during the weekend while remaining on-call on weekday nights.

Volunteers go out in groups of three or four, travelling across the city and sometimes into Bath in branded cars and uniforms.

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They are often first on scene before the emergency services arrive.

“When I’m on-call I don’t routinely go out searching for people and I tend to get on with some cleaning,” said Kitty.

“But I stay awake and dressed so that if a direct emergency comes in, I can be out of the door as quickly as possible.”

Kitty tells me the volunteers have no restraining or sectioning powers, but there have been times when they’ve had no choice but to restrain people who’ve attempted to run straight into traffic, or had to remove a ligature from someone’s neck.

Equipment lined up ready for the patrol teams.

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Kitty added: “We see a lot of people who have been suffering from abuse or significant trauma.

“A lot of people hear voices that they say are instructing them to do these harmful things, such as ‘go the bridge’.

“It’s our job to bring them back to themselves and ask them if this is what they really want.

“Every person we come across is different though, no job is ever the same.”

‘I’d rather volunteer here than go down the pub any day’

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Volunteer George Manchip also holds down a busy day job, but finds himself often rushing back to SPB.

“I’d rather volunteer here than go down the pub anyday,” he said.

“I used to be in the military, came out and then went through a rough patch, so I understand what the people we help are going through.

SPB volunteer George Manchip.

“Our approach is gentle. We try to be a friend to someone when they need it most.”

For when the usual techniques to talk someone down fail, the charity recently acquired a support dog, a female Springer Spaniel.

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Kitty said: “I’ll go, do you want to come and have a chat? I’ve got a puppy in the back. Often their face will light up a bit.”

Patrol teams also use specialist equipment such as drones and thermal imaging cameras to locate people who might need assistance.

Demand ‘increased tenfold’ over the pandemic

While patrol teams scale the city, call handler volunteers such as Andro Andrejevic are at the office manning the charity’s 24/7 helpline.

The charity was set up in 2018 and received a huge surge in calls over the pandemic, reporting a 300% increase in 2020.

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Andro said: “I used to self-harm and I found out I suffered from depression.

“I don’t have self-harm anymore, but I wanted to help people in my position and show them that they can change with determination, support from family and friends and medical treatment if needed.

SPB call handler volunteer Andro at the charity’s Warmley office.

“I’ve been here since July 2020 and I’d say our calls and call-outs have increased tenfold.

“Usually people who call me are struggling with loneliness, or the lack of help or understanding they’re getting from their crisis teams or GPs.

“Nobody is a burden, they can speak to us and we’re here to listen.

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“We do so much good work here. I hope we’ll be here for many years to come.

‘Mental health services are chronically underfunded’

Another volunteer call handler, Craig Russell, said: “I usually start my shift about 4pm and then from about 7pm until midnight, it’s pretty full-on on the call-out desk.

SPB volunteer olunteer Craig Russell.

“This is such an important organisation and it’s a good job it’s around.

“The government are chronically underfunding pretty much all frontline services.

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“When taking a call, you feel that progress has been made over that call, and that’s really fulfilling.

“But then you realise that person is going back into a system which is ill-equipped to support them.”

For more information on the charity, visit: https://www.spbristol.org/

You can find SPB on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The charity’s helpline is available on 0800 689 5652.

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