This Saturday is World Suicide Prevention Day, when we reflect on what needs to be done to prevent suicide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that 800,000 people take their own lives each year across the globe. That's the equivalent of the population of Leeds dying a tragic and preventable death every year - one person every 40 seconds. It is a terrible waste of precious life, and leaves a devastating legacy for families, friends and loved ones.
In the UK, suicide remains the biggest killer of young men. There is a clear link between chronic mental health conditions and preventable suicide, and yet so often the mental health system fails to intervene in time.
One aspect of this ongoing tragedy that deserves attention is the growing number of suicides in our prisons. Britain's prison system is in meltdown: understaffing, overcrowding and rising levels of violence. The number of self-harm incidents, assaults on inmates and deaths in prison went up over the past twelve months, according to the Ministry of Justice. There were 257 prisoner deaths compared with 153 in 2006. 95 of the deaths in prison in the 12 months leading up to September 2015 were self-inflicted. This is the highest level in 25 years.
Prisoners identified as being at heightened risk of suicide or self-harm are given additional support via the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) process. However, 60% of those who took their own lives between September 2014 and September 2015 had not been identified as at heightened risk, and therefore did not receive this care.
The charity Inquest states that 'deaths in prison cannot be looked at separately from examining harsh and impoverished prison conditions, the use of segregation, poor medical care and prison overcrowding - all of which have implications for people's mental and physical health'. This is plainly right. Prison conditions create the environment where suicidal thoughts are allowed to germinate. The failure to identify those most at risk, and to provide the attention they need, means that prison suicides are taking place that could be avoided.
This represents a colossal failure of public policy, and ministers must be held to account. When I have pressed ministers on mental health and suicides in prison, the answers have revealed a lack of detail and urgency. As part of my #mentalhealthmatters campaign to highlight just how little information the Government collects when it comes to mental health, I asked ministers how many people with a mental health condition had received custodial sentences. They couldn't answer.
And just this week in the House of Commons, I warned Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ministers that they were guilty of a dereliction of duty of care. The Minister, Phillip Lee MP, responded to say that "the system in place for mental healthcare and the continuity of care for people before, during and post their stay in prison is clearly not where it should be. I would argue that that has been the case for many decades." You can watch the video of the exchange below.
This is breathtakingly complacent. Yes, we have never done enough to provide adequate mental health services in our prisons, even though most prisoners have some form of mental illness. But the crucial point is that the situation is deteriorating. We are going backwards, not forwards. This is the point that Ministers seem to be unable or unwilling to address.
Today, we think about all the families affected by suicide, and recognise the role of those professionals and volunteers who provide care, counselling and support. We should also give some attention to people who the Courts have determined should be deprived of their freedom, because time spent in prison should not mean losing your life to suicide.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and President of Labour's Campaign for Mental Health
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)