Why is it so hard to talk about suicide?

Award-winning Ben McGrail and his partner Jenna Shaw after picking up his award Award-winning Ben McGrail and his partner Jenna Shaw after picking up the radio award

BBC presenter and producer Ben McGrail has been honoured with a Mind Media Award for a radio programme he produced and presented about suicide in Somerset.

It went out in May on BBC Somerset's Mid Morning show, and tackled the often-ignored subject with tact, dignity and in a manner that encouraged conversation. Because of this the local council's public health department nominated the show in the radio category, and Ben was handed the award at a ceremony on Monday 16 November.

Up against the likes of Radio 4 and LBC, he said the entire experience meant "an awful lot".

"It's a national thing for a very well respected charity on an issue that is really important to the programme I present," Ben explained. "Mental health has been a consistent theme for the two years I've been presenting the programme.

"Things like Robin Williams, studies by Mind... all of these things gave us reasons to discuss it on air and the more we discussed it the more it became clear that people wanted to open-up and talk. We've been quite strong at pushing that. We want people to know there is support and we're there to talk and we're passionate about it."

'A big issue in Somerset'

The programme that won the award, 'Why is it so hard to talk about suicide?', was a three-hour show purely on the subject of suicide. It's not the first time the show has talked about people taking their own lives and Ben says it certainly wont be the last time.

"Since the programme in May we have had another phone-in about suicide. It's a big issue for us here in Somerset.

Ben on stage at the Mind Media Awards being handed his award by BBC Deputy News Editor Toby Castle and Jo Brand Ben on stage at the Mind Media Awards being handed his award by BBC Deputy News Editor Toby Castle and Jo Brand

"My next aim is to look at the stats for people that are waiting for NHS help and the time people wait to get that help - I think that's what needs to be nailed down in figures. I want to challenge the NHS locally and nationally.

"This is a personal crusade for me. The thing is, in Somerset, our suicide rates are high. Between 2011 and 2013, 50 people took their lives each year. During that same time period 28 people died in crashes on the roads. We are always talking about road safety but avoid the subject that clearly impacts on more people."

As an area, Somerset has proportionally low funding for mental health compared to physical health, something that Ben thinks needs to be addressed in order to rectify the county's issue with people choosing the end their lives.

"I wanted to work on this for myself. It's personal to me, not suicide, but mental health. Funding across the whole of the UK is low for mental health, but it's particularly low here and I think that impacts on the number of people taking their own lives.

"The show was about being upfront about it, matter of fact, same as you would talk about physical health. I wanted to take away the stigma.

"I had a lot of support on the day, but I did all the ground work and met all the people involved and did all the pre-recs. It was a good two months of planning putting it together - finding the right guests, making sure everyone is comfortable doing it, working out the right mix of guests on the day. At the end of the day I had to make sure it was really good radio."

Careful language

"My show relies on people getting in touch - it's a phone-in show. But because it was quite a specific subject I wasn't anticipating too many people joining in. I wouldn't say we had higher than normal calls, but we had people willing to share their stories. Lots of people got in touch to share the experiences they had had over the years.

Ben in the studio at BBC Somerset Ben in the studio at BBC Somerset where he presents the weekday mid-morning programme

"But having people join in the conversation presented a new issue for us. With this type of sensitive programming you have to be really careful about the language used. It's a live programme, and with the public involved it meant being on alert for the wording they may use, and also the stories they may share.

"We couldn't say 'committed suicide', we were advised that the technical term is 'completed suicide', but I found that very alien and distant, so we referred to it as 'taking your own life' or 'dying by suicide'. We also had to be on guard for anyone sharing a story about how someone ended their life - the BBC has really strict guidelines on this in case anyone listening is considering taking their own life and finds encouragement in what they hear."

The entire station got on board with the issue, and the thread ran through Breakfast and Drivetime programmes too, Ben said his research meant different shows could take different treatments and keep the story fresh: "We looked at strong news lines about people taking their lives across Somerset, reasons why it might be going up too. The public health team actually came on the radio too.

"We even took the Mid Morning show out of the building, broadcasting live from from Mind in Taunton and West Somerset, and during the show I officially opened their new premises there. It was a really positive end to the show to cut the ribbon on a new service for the people of Somerset."

Since the show's broadcast in May Ben has had a lot of positive feedback, and of course being handed an award for your hard work is a wonderful thing to celebrate.

"I found out I was put forward for the award in September. I didn't think I would win, so I hadn't prepared anything... but then I didn't realise winners would have to make a speech anyway. My award was the second of the evening so I didn't have much time to think about it.

"When I was called to go up I just had to make it up on the spot. I talked about Somerset and the area, about the fact we have one of the oldest populations in the country and we're trying to help them have a space to talk about mental health. I didn't have too think to hard about what I was saying because I'm so passionate about the subject. My girlfriend was there and she filmed it, but I haven't looked back at it yet.

"After the programme went out I received an email from a woman whose daughter took her own life in January. She basically said that the programme had helped her to understand some things and provided comfort. At the awards I met her husband. He said he listened and appreciated the show. That was really nice.

"In my acceptance speech I said if it helped one family it was worthwhile. It sounds clich├ęd but that's how I feel."

Listen to the programme on iPlayer here.


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