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Nina Smith and Dr Sam McKay stand either side of a sign saying 'student wellbeing'

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PhD researcher whose personal loss fuelled passion for suicide prevention takes research mission around the world

April 16, 2024

An Edge Hill University PhD researcher who lost her brother to suicide is pursuing her passion to improve mental health support by working with experts around the world.

Content warning
This article discusses suicide and self harm.

Nina Smith’s brother Will died two weeks before she started her Masters degree in mental health at Edge Hill. The 35-year-old mum of two bravely harnessed her lived experience of grief and threw herself into her studies.

Determined to inform policy and practice on suicide prevention, and find strategies to help schools improve their support, Nina successfully applied for a Churchill Fellowship which supports individuals to follow their passion for change by learning from innovation across the world and then sharing their experiences in the UK.

She has already visited Australia and will travel to the US to learn from schools and leading organisations like Orygen Youth Health in Australia and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Nina said: “As a former teacher I have seen that the number of children struggling with their mental health is increasing and the severity of that mental ill health is also increasing.

“When my brother died I didn’t know the signs to look out for and if I had I might have been able to help. I want to do something to help now.

“There’s some brilliant practice going on in Australia and the US and this is an amazing opportunity to learn from fantastic organisations, accomplished professionals and young people themselves about what strategies work and how they can be implemented in schools here.”

Nina’s Fellowship proposal was inspired by school-based research carried out during her time at Edge Hill while studying MSc Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health, supported by a bursary provided by Everton in the Community, the official charity of Everton Football Club.

Nina developed and delivered self-harm and suicide prevention workshops to female pupils, aged 14 – 16, all of whom had experience of self-harm or suicidal behaviour.

“The girls I worked with were all known to self-harm and many had attempted to take their own lives. They had it really tough at home and needed help.

“I want to find answers to the questions this work raised: what could schools do to support our young people and what support do schools need in order to do this.”

While in Australia Nina presented her research on ‘girls, self-harm and suicide prevention in schools’ – co-written with Edge Hill colleagues Andy Smith, Professor of Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health, David Haycock, senior lecturer in sport, physical activity and mental health, and Dr Helen O’Keeffe, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education – at organisations including The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and Orygen Youth Mental Health.

Nina learned about Government-led policies such as substantial ringfenced budgets for schools to spend on the most effective mental health support for their students, enabling them to hire professional psychologists, mental health practitioners and community liaison officers to deliver specialist programmes for example.

In the US she will also visit Harvard University’s new Center for Suicide Research and Prevention and schools in New York which are adopting innovative approaches to improve youth mental health.

Professor Smith, Director of Edge Hill’s new Centre for Mental Health, Sport and Physical Activity Research, and Dr O’Keeffe are exploring how to embed Nina’s findings into their current work on mental health and suicide prevention in schools, including the University’s award-winning Tackling the Blues programme, run in partnership with Everton in the Community and Tate Liverpool.

They said: “Alongside Edge Hill’s Outstanding Ofsted rating for initial teacher education and world leading impactful research in mental health, Nina’s drive and insight will be invaluable as we continue to focus on how we can support schools, teachers, young people and their communities.

“We want to empower people like Nina, with lived experience of mental health challenges, to support the work of the Centre and Faculty of Education so that it continues to have a real, positive impact on policy and practice in this field.”

Nina’s drive for change has also attracted the support of key suicide prevention campaigners 3 Dads Walking who are lobbying to make suicide prevention a compulsory part of the UK school curriculum.

Mike Palmer, Andy Airey and Tim Owen have all lost a young daughter to suicide and are keen to discover how Nina’s fellowship findings and Edge Hill’s wider research could inform their campaigning.

Edge Hill’s Centre for Mental Health, Sport and Physical Activity Research is a new focal point in the University’s expanding body of research which aims to address some of society’s most pressing problems including the current mental health crisis.

Find out how to get involved with the Centre by emailing and follow Nina’s journey on Instagram: Ninajosmith1.

The Department of Sport and Physical Activity provides a variety of undergraduate courses including sports science, management, coaching, education and therapy, endorsed by professional bodies like CIMSPA and BASES, and postgraduate opportunities such as the MSc Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health delivered in association with Everton in the Community.

The Faculty of Education recently became the only higher education institution in England to be rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted across all three teacher training age phases.

Edge Hill students who would like support for any mental health concerns can contact the Wellbeing Team and staff can find out more on the HR wiki pages.

April 16, 2024


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