After a decade of decline, suicide is now back on the rise. According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, 735 Londoners took their own life in 2015 - this equates to around 14 a week.
This figure should concern us all, as it represents the highest number of suicides recorded since 2002, an increase of over a third in just one year.
Boroughs in Inner London seem worst affected by suicide - apart from Lewisham and Newham, every other borough in Inner London has a higher suicide rate than the London average.
But suicide does not respect borough boundaries - it is an issue which affects all of London.
This shocking rise in the number of suicides is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only do the figures not show the thousands of attempted suicides, which are prevented by the health and emergency services every year, but London as a whole is affected by some of the worst mental health rates in the country. It represents merely the sharpest end of the wider mental health crisis.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy, for both the person who took their own life, and their families, friends and the wider community. We need to better understand the reason for suicide and what lies behind the current increase.
This is a role that the Mayor of London can, and should play. In his manifesto, the Mayor committed to work to decrease the number of suicides in London. Last November, I chaired a meeting of the London Assembly Health Committee with Public Health England, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), the Association of Directors of Public Health and the Haringey Suicide Prevention Group to discuss how suicide is managed in London, and in particular, how the Mayor and Greater London Authority can best support local action to reduce suicide.
During this meeting, we heard that it is important to keep an open mind on the principle causes of suicide in London. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that particular groups of Londoners are deemed to be at higher risk. There is some evidence that the rates of female suicide are increasing, however, men are particularly over-represented in suicide statistics: three quarters of people who commit suicide in London are male, and suicide remains the biggest killer of working age men.
Other high risk groups include people who live highly stressed lives, such as young people who may have been in care, people who have been the victims of sexual or physical violence, people coming out of the armed forces, the LGBT+ communities and people with established mental health problems.
The diversity of experience within London highlights the need to develop multiple approaches to identifying people at risk of suicide, reducing access to means of suicide, and better mental health support for people who have been affected by suicide. It also requires a mix of local action and wider regional strategic vision, which can help bring the various strands of action together into a coherent whole.
Given the Mayor's commitment to helping to reduce the number of suicides in London, we have written to him to outline how he can intervene in an already complex system of primary and mental health services in London.
Our recommendations include:
- London should become a 'zero-suicide' city (first adopted in Detroit), preventing suicide by creating an open environment for people to talk and find out where they can get help.
- The Mayor should work with Public Health England and the Association of Directors of Public Health to collate all suicide data in London.
- The Mayor should look into real-time data capture to identify trends and potential clusters and look to carry out a pilot in a London borough.
- The Mayor should support the CALM helpline to remain open, as funding is due to end later this year.
Most importantly, we need to better understand what lies behind the current increase, and whether this represents a 'new normal' for London. The Government has promised a revolution in mental health provision, but services, particularly at the front end of patient care, have never been under more pressure.
We need to back our call for action with solid data and a focus on partnership working between the various strands of the NHS, local authorities and the voluntary sector.
Only then can we hope to reduce the number of suicides in London.
For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, or see www.samaritans.org for more info.