Carla McCabe, production manager at Tern Television and associate producer of Breaking the Silence, talks about the importance of listening and gaining the trust of contributors when dealing with taboo subjects.

Breaking the Silence – our documentary on suicide that last month won the ‘Nations and Regions Programme’ category at the RTS Programme Awards – was quite a risk for BBC Northern Ireland. It’s a taboo subject – almost everyone in Northern Ireland knows someone who has died by suicide – but we wanted to address the stigma attached to the often whispered word. It was important for me to show that suicide could come knocking on any door and it was nothing to be ashamed of. However, making a show around such a sensitive subject was always going to require delicate treatment.  

Our first and most important step was to ensure that we had a thorough understanding of what is frequently a misunderstood subject. We spoke to many suicide awareness organisations, governing bodies and professionals throughout Northern Ireland until we found the Niamh Louise Foundation – an organisation formed by a set of bereaved parents who didn’t have help available to them when they lost their daughter to suicide. The initial days on the production were spent simply listening but without them, we couldn’t have proceeded further.

We learnt from the outset that this programme would not provide answers; there is no single answer as to why someone takes their own life. What we could do was to give the public an insight into the devastation left behind and educate them about the warning signs of suicidal intent. We gained trust by listening, and by taking advice from those families who had no choice but to understand the impact of suicide.

We did not need to sell the show to them. These families wanted to tell their story; it gave them a voice to help reach out to other families. All they asked is that we did so in a balanced and sensitive way. Brendan Byrne’s simple directorial style gave contributors the opportunity to tell their story in a hugely open, honest and powerful way without being sensationalist.

The best advice I was given was to read the Samaritans media guidelines, as many terms used when reporting suicide cause offence to bereaved families. It was vital we avoided imitative or stereotypical behaviour. The families appreciated this and the bond between the production team and contributors is apparent on screen.

Working with vulnerable, apprehensive and emotional contributors can be challenging. It is important to give people time and space to tell their story in a familiar, safe environment. I was part of a smaller than usual team, in order to be less intrusive when going into people’s homes. In time, we gained their trust.

I found the contributors relaxed when we told them they would be the first to see the programme prior to transmission. I believe that if programme makers don’t feel comfortable watching with those involved, then it’s not a true portrayal of their stories. There was a very powerful silence when we watched together, a huge sense of relief on our part that they felt we’d done their stories justice. The RTS was the icing on the cake – it was great to be recognised by our peers. 

Breaking the Silence won a Royal Television Award in the Nations and Regions Category in March.