Holding the Hope in Family Law

In the late 90s, I joined Gillian Bishop as an assistant solicitor at a firm with a pioneering and innovative practice as well as a commitment to the protection of the vulnerable. That firm became Family Law in Partnership and the original ethos still radiates. I left the profession to raise a family and am now a mental health activist. One of my goals is strategic joined up thinking around suicide prevention.

I recently helped to make Hold the Hope, a suicide awareness film for South West London and St George’s NHS Mental Health Trust, funded by South West London Integrated Care Board and created by a lived experience team. Hold the Hope offers a creative educational approach to upskilling professionals and carers around suicide prevention, and carries clinical assurance.

There are many powerful films that have been made about the tragedy of losing someone to suicide. I believe Hold the Hope is different in that it explores how to actually support someone in a suicidal crisis. It is based around a poetry narrative, and CONNECT REFLECT VALIDATE, an easy to remember takeaway. It is a distillation of my experience of how to support someone in suicidal crisis. I am not a professional; the film was not made through a clinical lens.

The Government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy for England has eight priority action areas, one of which is “making suicide everybody’s business”. I believe Hold the Hope can play a key role in the successful delivery of this goal.

Hold the Hope was originally requested by the Metropolitan Police, British Transport Police and South West London secondary schools. There are now plans for it to be delivered more widely, including to mental health professionals and clinicians, trainee social workers, trainee midwives, private mental health hospitals and one of the main political parties.

Why am I so passionate about bringing the Hold the Hope project into family law? Because having been a family lawyer myself it seems to me that family breakdown offers a fertile ground for suicidal crisis both for clients and those trying to help them.

Family law practice poses many challenges for lawyers and their clients. For example:

The family court system is broken. Delays are huge, cases are cancelled, causing deep-dive emotional and financial damage. One of my Hold the Hope colleagues is a Samaritan and also works at a walk-in suicide crisis centre. They report that many people reach crisis point when in family breakdown situations. But the court system has a monopoly; there is no escape.

There can be power imbalances between partners and also between professionals. There can be a communication gap between clients and professionals which can make it difficult for clients to get the help they need and the professionals to provide it. There are people who will have been victimised. Even narcissistic clients who are used to feeling in control will eventually have to face that they may be losing it. This can result in anxiety-driven behaviour on all sides, which may present as panic/anger/lashing out or emotional overwhelm or shutdown.

Lawyers may have chosen family law because of their own lived experience. They may wish to give a voice to the vulnerable. I believe this could fuel their own vulnerability and take them to burnout.

Family Law in Partnership has offered to be Hold the Hope’s friendly, non-clinical audience, a pilot before we deliver our first session of suicide awareness training to the Metropolitan Police. They have given their time to provide me and my lived experience colleagues with feedback so that we can be the best version of ourselves in our drive to save lives.

And the added value? I believe that CONNECT REFLECT VALIDATE methodology, may also be transferable to providing legal services.

This is because holding the hope for someone in a suicidal crisis is about meeting head on the authentic experience of the person in need at that moment, whatever that may look like. I am interested to hear from Family Law in Partnership and other family lawyers whether Hold the Hope and CONNECT REFLECT VALIDATE could offer additional legal service delivery benefits as well as upskilling family law practitioners to support the emotional wellbeing of their clients and each other.

Collaborative working creates new knowledge and I look forward to seeing whether lawyers and their clients can all benefit from this innovative approach.