Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 13:34 UK

Hairdressers to help prevent suicide

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

Nichola McWilliams
Hairdresser Nichola McWilliams is being trained in suicide prevention

Hairdressers and taxi drivers are being trained to help spot vulnerable people who might be contemplating taking their own lives in Belfast.

A number of job centre workers and Marks and Spencer staff are also being given basic counselling skills in suicide prevention.

Those behind the Belfast project believe it could be used in other cities and towns with a suicide problem.

During a six-week period in the summer, 30 people took their own lives in Belfast.

Research has shown that people feeling depressed may be more willing to discuss their problems with relative strangers rather than friends or family because they feel embarrassed about talking to someone they know.

NISRA statistics

A trip to the hairdressers, barbers or a taxi-ride is often a time when people like to chat - positively or negatively.

One of the people being trained in the new skills is Nichola McWilliams who runs the Ben Thomas hairdressing salon on the Oldpark Road in north Belfast.

She says talking can be as much part of the job as cutting.

"Some people really open up while they're having their hair cut - from the silly things to the most important things in their lives," she says.

"They do it without even knowing it.

"And we, as hairdressers, do it too. We tell them things about our personal lives and we don't realise that we've done it."

Spotting the signs

Recently, some of the salon's customers have taken their own lives. That's one of the reasons why she believes that suicide prevention training is so important.

"It allows us to listen much more carefully, and be able pick up on those tiny signs of people who need help.

"What we can do is listen, and give them leaflets and telephone numbers where they can get professional help. We're not professionals, we're still hairdressers."

The north Belfast-based Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm (Pips) is one of the professional groups which can step in with expert assistance.

Clare Morris
Clare Morris from PIPS said suicide prevention training is like first aid

One of the staff who trains hairdressers and others in suicide prevention skills, Clare Morris, says 1,000 people have been trained already.

Teachers, charity workers, the West Belfast Taxi Association and some sports coaches are among the latest to sign up.

Clare Morris says: "We can give basic suicide prevention skills.

"These are skills we think everyone should have. It's a bit like first aid, but looking out for people who might be at risk of suicide."

It's been said that suicide is permanent solution to a temporary problem. Talking about that problem can sometimes help people realise that there is a better solution than death.

The reality is that some people don't want to talk about it, and there is little chance of anyone else spotting just how depressed someone may be feeling.

Nonetheless, the training project is in place to ensure that if there is a cry for help that it can be handled properly - whether it be during a taxi-ride or a cut and blow-dry.

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