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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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Owens CV, Hardwick RJL, Charles NT, Watkinson G (2015). Preventing suicides in public places: a practice resource. London, Department of Health.

Journal articles

Owens CV, Carter M, Shenton D, Byng R, Quinn C (In Press). Engaging Without Exposing: Use of a Fictional Character to Facilitate Mental Health Talk in Focus Groups with Men Who Have Been Subject to the Criminal Justice System. Qualitative Health Research
Byng R, Kirkpatrick T, Lennox C, Warren FC, Anderson R, Brand SL, Callaghan L, Carroll L, Durcan G, Gill L, et al (In Press). Evaluation of a complex intervention for prisoners with common mental health problems, near to and after release: the Engager randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry Abstract.
Byng R, Lennox C, Kirkpatrick T, Quinn C, Anderson R, Brand SL, Callaghan L, Carroll L, Durcan G, Gill L, et al (2022). Development and evaluation of a collaborative care intervention for male prison leavers with mental health problems: the Engager research programme. Programme Grants for Applied Research, 10(8), 1-46. Abstract.
Owens C, Fox F, Redwood S, Davies R, Foote L, Salisbury N, Williams S, Biddle L, Thomas K (2020). Measuring outcomes in trials of interventions for people who self-harm: qualitative study of service users' views. BJPsych Open, 6(2). Abstract.
Dunn BD, Widnall E, Reed N, Owens C, Campbell J, Kuyken W (2019). Bringing light into darkness: a multiple baseline mixed methods case series evaluation of Augmented Depression Therapy (ADepT). Behaviour Research and Therapy, 120, 103418-103418.
Brand SL, Quinn C, Pearson M, Lennox C, Owens C, Kirkpatrick T, Callaghan L, Stirzaker A, Michie S, Maguire M, et al (2019). Building programme theory to develop more adaptable and scalable complex interventions: Realist formative process evaluation prior to full trial. Evaluation, 25(2), 149-170. Abstract.
Dunn BD, Widnall E, Reed N, Taylor R, Owens C, Spencer A, Kraag G, Kok G, Geschwind N, Wright K, et al (2019). Evaluating Augmented Depression Therapy (ADepT): Study protocol for a pilot randomised controlled trial. Pilot and Feasibility Studies, 27, 63-63.
Owens C, Derges J, Abraham C (2019). Intervening to prevent a suicide in a public place: a qualitative study of effective interventions by lay people. BMJ Open, 9(11), e032319-e032319. Abstract.
Russell G, Kapp SK, Elliott D, Elphick CM, Gwernan-Jones RC, Owens C (2019). Mapping the autistic advantage from the accounts of adults diagnosed with autism:. A qualitative study. Autism in Adulthood, 1.2
Kirkpatrick T, Lennox C, Taylor R, Anderson R, Maguire M, Haddad M, Michie S, Owens C, Durcan G, Stirzaker A, et al (2018). Evaluation of a complex intervention (Engager) for prisoners with common mental health problems, near to and after release: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open, 8(2). Abstract.  Author URL.
Quinn C, Denman K, Smithson P, Owens C, Sheaff R, Campbell J, Porter I, Annison J, Byng R (2018). General practitioner contributions to achieving sustained healthcare for offenders: a qualitative study. BMC Fam Pract, 19(1). Abstract.  Author URL.
Perry-Young L, Owen G, Kelly S, Owens C (2018). How people come to recognise a problem and seek medical help for a person showing early signs of dementia: a systematic review and meta-ethnography. Dementia (London), 17(1), 34-60. Abstract.  Author URL.
Wright K, Dodd A, Warren FC, Medina-Lara A, Taylor R, Jones S, Owens C, Javaid M, Dunn B, Harvey JE, et al (2018). The clinical and cost effectiveness of adapted dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) for bipolar mood instability in primary care (ThrIVe-B programme): a feasibility study. Trials, 19(1). Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Charles N (2017). Development and evaluation of a leaflet for concerned family members and friends: 'It's safe to talk about suicide'. Health Education Journal, 76(5), 582-594. Abstract.
Malone KM, McGuinness SG, Cleary E, Jefferies J, Owens C, Kelleher CC (2017). Lived Lives: a Pavee Perspective. An arts-science community intervention around suicide in an indigenous ethnic minority. Wellcome Open Research, 2, 27-27. Abstract.
Owens C (2016). "Hotspots" and "copycats": a plea for more thoughtful language about suicide. Lancet Psychiatry, 3(1), 19-20.  Author URL.
Owens C, Charles N (2016). Implementation of a text-messaging intervention for adolescents who self-harm (TeenTEXT): a feasibility study using normalisation process theory. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health, 10 Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Hansford L, Sharkey S, Ford T (2016). Needs and fears of young people presenting at accident and emergency department following an act of self-harm: secondary analysis of qualitative data. Br J Psychiatry, 208(3), 286-291. Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Sharkey S, Smithson J, Hewis E, Emmens T, Ford T, Jones R (2015). Building an online community to promote communication and collaborative learning between health professionals and young people who self-harm: an exploratory study. Health Expect, 18(1), 81-94. Abstract.  Author URL.
Sweeney L, Owens C, Malone K (2015). Communication and interpretation of emotional distress within the friendships of young Irish men prior to suicide: a qualitative study. Health Soc Care Community, 23(2), 150-158. Abstract.  Author URL.
Byng R, Howerton A, Owens CV, Campbell J (2015). Pathways to suicide attempts among male offenders: the role of agency. Sociol Health Illn, 37(6), 936-951. Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Roberts S, Taylor J (2014). Utility of local suicide data for informing local and national suicide prevention strategies. Public Health, 128(5), 424-429. Abstract.  Author URL.
Cox GR, Owens C, Robinson J, Nicholas A, Lockley A, Williamson M, Cheung YTD, Pirkis J (2013). Interventions to reduce suicides at suicide hotspots: a systematic review. BMC Public Health, 13 Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Lambert H (2012). Mad, bad or heroic? Gender, identity and accountability in lay portrayals of suicide in late twentieth-century England. Cult Med Psychiatry, 36(2), 348-371. Abstract.  Author URL.
Mcloughlin AB, Malone KM, Owens C, Kelleher C (2012). SUICIDE IN THE CHILDREN OF IRELAND FROM 2003-2008: a MIXED METHOD STUDY. IRISH JOURNAL OF MEDICAL SCIENCE, 181, S446-S446.  Author URL.
Owen G, Belam J, Lambert H, Donovan J, Rapport F, Owens C (2012). Suicide communication events: lay interpretation of the communication of suicidal ideation and intent. Soc Sci Med, 75(2), 419-428. Abstract.  Author URL.
Sharkey S, Smithson J, Hewis E, Jones R, Emmens T, Ford T, Owens C (2012). Supportive interchanges and face-work as 'protective talk' in an online self-harm support forum. Communication and Medicine, 9(1), 71-82. Abstract.
Sharkey S, Jones R, Smithson J, Hewis E, Emmens T, Ford T, Owens C (2011). Ethical practice in internet research involving vulnerable people: lessons from a self-harm discussion forum study (SharpTalk). J Med Ethics, 37(12), 752-758. Abstract.  Author URL.
Smithson J, Sharkey S, Hewis E, Jones RB, Emmens T, Ford T, Owens C (2011). Membership and boundary maintenance on an online self-harm forum. Qual Health Res, 21(11), 1567-1575. Abstract.  Author URL.
Jones R, Sharkey S, Ford T, Emmens T, Hewis E, Smithson J, Sheaves B, Owens C (2011). Online discussion forums for young people who self-harm: User views. Psychiatrist, 35(10), 364-368. Abstract.
Smithson J, Sharkey S, Hewis E, Jones R, Emmens T, Ford T, Owens C (2011). Problem presentation and responses on an online forum for young people who self-harm. DISCOURSE STUDIES, 13(4), 487-501.  Author URL.
Owens C, Owen G, Belam J, Lloyd K, Rapport F, Donovan J, Lambert H (2011). Recognising and responding to suicidal crisis within family and social networks: qualitative study. BMJ, 343 Abstract.  Author URL.
Jones R, Sharkey S, Smithson J, Ford T, Emmens T, Hewis E, Sheaves B, Owens C (2011). Using Metrics to Describe the Participative Stances of Members Within Discussion Forums. JOURNAL OF MEDICAL INTERNET RESEARCH, 13(1), 212-226.  Author URL.
Owens C (2010). Interventions for self-harm: Are we measuring outcomes in the most appropriate way?. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(6), 502-503.
Owens C, Farrand P, Emmens T, Darvill R, Hewis E, Aitken P (2010). Involving service users in intervention design: a participatory approach to developing a text-messaging intervention to reduce repetition of self-harm. Health Expectations, 14, 285-295.
Owens C, Owen G, Lambert H, Donovan J, Belam J, Rapport F, Lloyd K (2009). Public involvement in suicide prevention: understanding and strengthening lay responses to distress. BMC Public Health, 9 Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Lloyd-Tomlins S, Emmens T, Aitken P (2009). Suicides in public places: findings from one English county. Eur J Public Health, 19(6), 580-582. Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Ley A, Aitken P (2008). Do different stakeholder groups share mental health research priorities? a four-arm Delphi study. Health Expect, 11(4), 418-431. Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Lambert H, Lloyd K, Donovan J (2008). Tales of biographical disintegration: how parents make sense of their sons' suicides. Sociol Health Illn, 30(2), 237-254. Abstract.  Author URL.
Howerton A, Byng R, Campbell J, Hess D, Owens C, Aitken P (2007). Understanding help seeking behaviour among male offenders: qualitative interview study. BMJ, 334(7588). Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens C, Lambert H, Donovan J, Lloyd KR (2005). A qualitative study of help seeking and primary care consultation prior to suicide. Br J Gen Pract, 55(516), 503-509. Abstract.  Author URL.
Hounsell J, Owens C (2005). User researchers in control: rhetoric and reality of user-led research. Mental Health Today, 29-32.
Owens C, Lloyd KR, Campbell J (2004). Access to health care prior to suicide: findings from a psychological autopsy study. Br J Gen Pract, 54(501), 279-281. Abstract.  Author URL.
Owens (2004). The glass-walled asylum: a description of a lay residential community for the severely mentally ill. Journal of Mental Health, 13(3), 319-332.
Owens C, Booth N, Briscoe M, Lawrence C, Lloyd K (2003). Suicide outside the care of mental health services: a case-controlled psychological autopsy study. Crisis, 24(3), 113-121. Abstract.  Author URL.
Lloyd KR, Booth NJ, Owens CV (2000). A case control study of suicide amongst persons not involved with mental health services. EUROPEAN PSYCHIATRY, 15, 270S-270S.  Author URL.
Booth N, Owens C (2000). Silent suicide: Suicide among people not in contact with mental health services. International Review of Psychiatry, 12(1), 27-30.
Owens C, Goble R, Pereira Gray D (1999). Involvement in multiprofessional continuing education: a local survey of 24 health care professions. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 13(3), 277-288. Abstract.


Owens C, Sharkey S (2011). Safety and privacy in online research with young people who self-harm. In Alderson P, Morrow V (Eds.) The ethics of research with children and young people: a practical handbook, London: Sage.


Quinn C, Brand S, Owens C, Byng R (2016). Synthesizing Multiple Qualitative Data Sets and Refining the Results in Complex Settings: Power and Paradigms.  Author URL.


Byng R, Weyer Brown C, Sheaff R, Samele C, Deggan C, Owens C, Harrison D, Smithson P, Wright C, Annison J, et al (2011). Care for Offenders; Continuity of Access (COCOA). NIHR Service Delivery and Organisation Programme.
Owens C (2007). Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots. Translated into Japanese. Tokyo, National Institute of Mental Health.
Owens C (2006). Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots. Leeds, National Institute for Mental Health in England.

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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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