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University of Exeter Medical School

Professor Emerita Christabel Owens

Professor Emerita Christabel Owens



As of 1st September 2020 I have retired from the University of Exeter but I remain available for external examining and advisory roles. I can still be contacted at my university email address.

Christabel is a social scientist who has been working in the field of mental health and illness since 1997. Until recently, she led a programme of applied mental health research with a particular focus on suicide and self-harming behaviour, particularly among people who are not in contact with mental health services, and specialising in qualitative and participatory research methods. Her work has been funded by the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health, the National Institute for Mental Health in England (NIMHE), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and numerous charities.

Research Specialisms

• Prevention of suicide in non-clinical populations and settings
• Communication about suicide and risk within domestic and social settings
• Development of interventions to support people who self-harm, and methods for measuring outcomes
• Qualitative and participatory research methods
• Public engagement in research


1988   PhD, University of Lancaster
1979   MA, with Distinction, University of Lancaster
1977   BEd, 1st Class Honours, University of Nottingham 

Research group links

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Research interests

Drawing on my background in the social sciences and philosophy, I work outside the dominant medico-psychiatric paradigm and try to understand suicide from the point of view of family members and friends who are caught up in the process.

Most research in the field of suicide has focused on the role of health professionals in identifying and managing risk, but a high proportion of those who take their own lives are non-users of clinical services. In these cases, the burden of care lies entirely with relatives and friends. We know very little about the part they can play in suicide prevention or the resources they need in order to do so.

My work focuses on this neglected area and aims to strengthen the capacity of lay people (as opposed to health professionals) to recognise and respond effectively to someone who is experiencing a suicidal crisis. This research is highlighted in the national suicide prevention strategy (Preventing Suicide in England: a cross-government outcomes strategy to save lives. DoH, 2012) and has been used to inform public education initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic.

I am also well known for my work on the prevention of suicides in public places. I wrote the first ever national Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots, published in 2006 by the Department of Health, to help local authorities identify and manage locations, such as bridges, cliffs and other sites, that offer means or opportunity for suicide. Being the first guidance on this topic anywhere in the world, this aroused considerable international interest. It was translated into Japanese in 2007, was adapted for use in Scotland and Australia and has been cited in support of capital projects to improve safety at several iconic locations worldwide. In 2014 I was commissioned by Public Health England to update it and the fully revised guidance, Preventing Suicides in Public Places: A Practice Resource, was published in December 2015. I am regularly contacted by agencies from around the world for advice on the identification and management of sites that are associated with suicide.

Other work has included a number of innovative projects to support self-management of self-harm, and studies examining the mental health needs of offenders.

Recent news stories:

Research projects

  • Public Health England. Supporting local authorities to develop high quality suicide prevention plans.
  • Medical Research Council. Public Involvement in suicide prevention II: The Stranger on the Bridge.
  • Wellcome Trust. Exploring diagnosis: Autism and the neurodiversity movement.
  • NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Health Research. Developing and evaluating a collaborative care intervention for prisoners with common mental health problems, pre- and post-release from prison (ENGAGER II).
  • National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Improving depression treatment outcomes by better repairing positivity deficits: Development and pilot randomised controlled trial of a novel psychological therapy (ADepT).
  • National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The clinical and cost effectiveness of adapted Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) for Bipolar Mood Instability in primary care (ThrIVe-B programme): A feasibility study.

Recently completed projects

  • Wellcome Trust. Suicide and stigma in an indigenous ethnic minority: Engaging with Irish Travellers through the ‘Lived Lives’ visual arts autopsy.
  • Public Health England. Development of new national guidance on the prevention of suicides in public places.
  • NIHR South-West Peninsula Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (PenCLAHRC). Acknowledging and responding to early signs of dementia in the family and social network.
  • James Wentworth Stanley Memorial Fund, the Horne Family Foundation and Devon County Council. 'It's safe to talk about suicide': Development and evaluation of a public education resource for community-level prevention of suicide.
  • Medical Research Council. Public Involvement in Suicide Prevention: Understanding and strengthening lay responses to distress.

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External Engagement and Impact

Committee/panel activities

Academic lead for Devon Suicide Prevention and Audit Group

Scientific Advisor to The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities

Advisor to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)

Advisor to SANE Research Team

Editorial responsibilities

Editorial board member, Suicidology Online

Reviewer for a wide range of journals and funding bodies

Invited lectures

2016  Keynote speaker: Lifeline Australia, Annual national meeting, Canberra

2016  Keynote speaker: Suicide Prevention Australia, Annual Conference, Canberra

2016  Harmless, 1st Annual Conference, Nottingham

2015  Suicide Prevention: What Works? National conference, Belfast

2015  4th National Conference on Suicide Bereavement, Manchester

2015  World Congress of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, Montreal                                       

2014  PAPYRUS (Prevention of Youth Suicide) National Conference

2013  Conference for World Suicide Prevention Day, hosted by SANE

2013 Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, London Regional Meeting

2012  Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, Midlands Regional Meeting

2011  Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, Gloucester Regional Meeting

2011  National Experts’ Consensus Meeting on the Implementation of Optimal Suicide Prevention Strategies

2011 Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo

2011 Mental Health Research Network, South West Hub

2011 SW Regional Suicide Prevention Workshop

2009  University College Dublin

2009  SW Division Royal College of Psychiatrists

2008  Choose Life Summit, NHS Health Scotland, Dundee

2007  Scottish Suicide Information Research and Evidence Network (SIREN), Glasgow

2007  Faculty of Public Health Annual Conference

2007  University of Cardiff

2006  National Institute for Mental Health in England, Innovations in Suicide Prevention

2006  Devon Interagency Forum on Self-Harm and Suicide Prevention

2005  Samaritans, South West Regional Conference

2005  Folk.Us conference

2004  Jewish Health Council of Salford

2003  Exeter Medical History Seminar Series

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Supervision / Group


  • Lucy Perry-Young (PhD, 2015)
  • Sarah Robens (PhD, 2012)

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