The latest suicide figures for England and Wales, issued by the Office of National Statistics, show an increase in the number of people who have taken their own lives.
According to the new data, suicide rates in the UK are at their highest since 2004 and there appears to have been a significant increase from 2010 to 2011 (although the methodology used to collect the data has also changed which could account for the increase in part).
Historically more men complete suicide attempts, and the 2011 figures show a big gender discrepancy with men accounting for three quarters of all suicides (4,552 males compared to 1,493 females). At Mind we are concerned about the high suicide rate in middle-aged men, which has gone up sharply since 2007.
The reasons for suicide are complex and often very individual but the tough economic climate and social factors such as insecurities around work and housing, social isolation, and substance misuse are felt particularly strongly by this group. For many middle-aged men financial problems or redundancy can cause feelings of shame and hopelessness, and can feel impossible to overcome.
Men may also be at higher risk of suicide as they are more reluctant to ask for support when they are feeling low. Mind's 2009 report 'Get it off your chest' found men are less likely to seek help for both emotional and physical problems, and that, when they do seek help, they are less likely to discuss emotional problems and tend to focus on physical issues instead. This means that men could be living with undiagnosed mental health problems and not accessing support that could help them to take control of their life again.
A big barrier to seeking help is stigma and discrimination - many people who contact our helplines are concerned about being labelled and judged, and worry about having a mental health diagnosis on their medical records. This can lead people to bottle up their emotions, which can often exacerbate problems. Our national anti-stigma campaign 'Time to Change', run in partnership with Rethink Mental Illness, aims to get people talking about their mental health. We are making progress - since Time to Change launched in 2007, our campaigns and events have reached millions of people across England, and we've seen a four per cent reduction in discrimination as reported by people with mental health problems.
We've also seen an increase in people contacting our support services and reading our information online suggesting it is getting easier to talk about mental health. There is a long way to go but we are moving in the right direction. This month, Time to Change launched a new advertising campaign across television and radio, encouraging people to do little things to show their support for someone with a mental health problem.
We know from research and from talking to our members and supporters that many people who take their own lives have been experiencing significant mental distress for some time. However, too often support is only available to people who are in serious crisis. People affected by suicide have told us that better support is essential to prevent people reaching crisis point. Suicide training for frontline health professionals, as well as better access to talking therapies and early intervention services, would allow more people access the help they needed before reaching a point where suicide appears to be their only option.
Our recent report into crisis care found that many crisis care teams are under-resourced and overstretched; in fact, 4 in 10 trusts have staffing levels well below established benchmarks. We know that treatment in hospital or at home isn't effective for everyone who's in crisis yet, only seven mental health trusts told us they have access to crisis houses. We know good crisis care does exist, but we are campaigning to make sure it is available to everyone who needs it.
In September of last year, the Government launched a new suicide prevention strategy for England. These figures emphasise just how important it is that this strategy is implemented properly. While we support the strategy's aims, we are concerned that it will have little traction on the frontline. At a time when there are cuts to health services, it is critical that local commissioners and health services prioritise this issue.
One intervention that can help to reduce suicide rates is to train more people in 'suicide first aid' so they feel confident supporting someone at risk. Mind Cymru is delivering Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), a two day workshop that offers intensive training for front-line workers and community members. ASIST provides practical training for caregivers seeking to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. Research published from Public Health Wales shows that training given by Mind Cymru's Big Lottery funded Positive Choices project is making a real difference to people's willingness to discuss and tackle suicide and self harm. After completing the ASIST course, 97% of people felt more prepared to help a person at risk of suicide. Furthermore, follow up studies showed 73% of people had already used the training to help someone.
Every suicide is a tragedy, and individual causes are never straight-forward. However, positive changes in society can make a difference to individual lives. We want to see stigma around mental health issues reduced, more training being provided on preventing suicide and more consistent, high quality crisis care being available to everyone who needs it. No-one should be left feeling they have nowhere to turn.
Advice for people affected by suicide or suicidal thoughts:
- Booklets for people who are having suicidal thoughts or who are supporting someone with suicidal thoughts can be found on Mind's website www.mind.org.uk
- The Samaritans run a 24-hour helpline on 08457 90 90 90. Mind runs an Infoline on 0300 123 3393.
- Mind also runs a peer-support network, the Elephant in the Room, via Facebook. www.facebook.com/mindelephant
Follow Beth A. Murphy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/betty_murphy