Three minutes to save a life: the course designed to raise suicide awareness

University initiative aims to equip all staff and students to support people at risk

University initiative aims to equip all staff and students to support people at risk

Showing compassion is at the heart of the 'three minutes' course. Picture: iStock

How can we prevent suicide? Is it the sole responsibility of mental health professionals, or can everyone play their part?

Nurse Clare Dickens, a senior lecturer in mental health at Wolverhampton University, believes we all need to understand how to help someone who is feeling suicidal.

Clare Dickens, senior mental health
lecturer at Wolverhampton

‘People can be petrified if they don’t know what to do,’ she says. ‘Our course is designed to give people a basic level of awareness and the confidence to do their bit in that moment.’  

Support outside formal counselling services

Set up in 2015, the pioneering ‘Three minutes to save a life’ course began as a staff training initiative to boost support for students.

‘We wanted a prompt response,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘We knew that even if we expanded the counselling service or employed many more mental health specialists, you’re always potentially creating a single point of failure. If a student is struggling, they may not feel comfortable seeking formal services.’ 

Watch: 3 minutes to Save a Life

According to the Mental Health Foundation, there is one death by suicide every two hours in the UK, and suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 20-34.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published in June 2018, revealed that at least 95 university students in England and Wales took their own lives in the 2016-17 academic year.

Training is open to all staff

Run monthly, the day-long programme covers suicide awareness, self-harm and emotional resilience, and is open to all of the university’s 3,000-plus staff, wherever they work.

‘A lot of students engage well with caretaking and security staff because they see them every day, so they have a level of rapport,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘One day that person might notice a student who looks like they’ve been crying. Now they have the confidence to ask, are you okay? What can I do to help? And they’re not scared of the answer.’

'If CPR education is mandatory then suicide education should be too, because it is a preventable cause of death'

Clare Dickens, senior lecturer in mental health, Wolverhampton University

Attendance is not compulsory, but word of mouth has made the course popular. ‘It’s eye-opening, but it doesn’t expect everyone to become a mini-expert,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘It’s stripped back to a principle of how human beings connect. It means that staff can go home at night knowing they’ve done everything possible to support that student.’

Inclusion in the nursing curriculum

Soon after it began running the course, the university decided to add it to its nursing curriculum, with the course now part of nursing students' induction. ‘Suicide and self-harm aren’t compulsory components of nurse education, which I’ve always found odd,’ says Ms Dickens.

‘We might have modules around risk management, but that’s very different to being able to engage compassionately with someone who thinks their life isn’t worth living. If CPR is mandatory then this should be too, because suicide is a preventable cause of death.’ 

Alongside enhancing their professional competence and confidence, the aim is to help nursing students care for themselves. ‘If you look at suicide rates by occupation, nurses are up there,’ says Ms Dickens.

Feedback from students

Third-year mental health nursing student Richard Jones did the course as part of his induction. ‘It was life-changing,’ he says. ‘It’s been embedded in my practice and my personal life ever since. When you break it down, it’s really just about being nice and taking the time to listen.’

Nursing students Carrie Harris and Richard Jones with Clare Dickens (centre).

He found having his own safety plan useful, when he experienced difficulties during his second year of studies and even contemplated quitting his degree. ‘I hit a wall,’ he says. ‘When I started the course, I thought "I’m fine, I’m emotionally resilient". But mental toughness isn’t always about being strong, it’s about identifying when you need help. If you’re more compassionate towards yourself, then arguably it means you can show more compassion to others.’

First-year adult nursing student Carrie Harris did the course in January. ‘The course has an impact not only in the way you’re looking after patients, but also your colleagues, other students and yourself,’ she says. ‘I took away a lot of self-care and resilience. You can’t look after others if you’re not taking care of yourself. I’m making time now to read a book or do something that is nothing to do with nursing. I plan it in my diary, writing “me time”.’


Female nurses’ high suicide rate

According to an ONS report published in 2017, which was based on deaths in England between 2011 and 2015, the risk of suicide among female health professionals was 24% higher than the national average. This was largely explained by high suicide risk among female nurses.

The programme has now been incorporated into the curriculum for many other student groups, including pharmacy, allied health care, paramedics and police, with around 1,200 staff and students trained to date.

‘Every time I deliver the training, within a couple of weeks someone will tell me about how they’ve been able to help someone’

Clare Dickens

‘We’re nurturing those members of the community who will be in the position of being helpers, and at the front line of seeing people in distress,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘It democratises suicide prevention.’

If someone tells you they have suicidal thoughts, they are giving you the opportunity
to help them, says Clare Dickens. Picture: iStock

Advice on preventing suicide

  • Although it needs to be taken seriously, a suicidal thought rarely comes with a genuine desire to die, says Ms Dickens. ‘It’s very often someone’s language of distress to say help me,’ she says.
  • Everyone can experience suicidal thoughts. ‘They’re not necessarily a symptom of mental illness,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘Most people who die by suicide don’t have a diagnosable mental health issue. Physical ill health can be as much of a red flag’
  • If someone discloses their suicidal thoughts, see it as a privilege, advises Ms Dickens. ‘They have had to overcome so much stigma to even look you in the eye and say that’s how they’re feeling,’ she says. ‘You’re being offered an opportunity to help them’
  • When you identify distress triggers, very often they are problems, says Ms Dickens. ‘And if you share them, you’ll usually find solutions,’ she says
  • Listening is crucial. ‘You often don’t need to say a word at first,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘Just listen carefully with a view to understanding what’s driving that person’s distress. You may not have all the solutions, but you can offer hope. We don’t instil enough that these thoughts will pass – and they will’ 
  • Judge the bar of your response on what you would want for your loved ones, Ms Dickens says. ‘Part of what we’re trying to do is save the ripple effect of suicide and what happens to those people around them. It’s a bereavement like no other,’ she adds
  • Devise your own safety plan. ‘It’s invaluable and everyone should have one, even if they have never had a suicidal thought,’ says Ms Dickens


A key component of the course is devising your own personal safety plan. ‘I see it as like having breakdown cover for your car,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘You hope your car doesn’t break down, but if it does, you have something in place so you’re not stranded. Why don’t we have that for our mental health?’

Plans may include favourite music or photographs to calm and distract. ‘We overlook the power of the mundane and simple,’ says Ms Dickens. They may also list family and friends you can call on, alongside professional sources of help. 

The next stage of the project is to record and evaluate people’s experiences of how they have used what they have learned. ‘Every time I deliver the training, within a couple of weeks someone will tell me about how they’ve been able to help someone,’ says Ms Dickens. ‘They’ve tipped them back to a point of safety, just by being kind.’

Where to go for support


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Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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