On Monday the Common's Health Select Committee - of which I am a member - published the interim report from our suicide prevention inquiry. Some key findings and recommendations have been shared early in order to inform the Government's refreshed strategy for suicide prevention, which is expected next month. There is hope among the committee, and the hundreds of individuals, charities and clinicians who submitted evidence, that this report might prove to be the stimulus for an effective and well-implemented government plan for suicide prevention.
By all accounts, there is not a moment to waste. 4,820 people took their own life last year alone. Tragically, in our country, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 49, young people aged 15-24, and mums in the first year after birth. The rate of suicide in our prisons is at a shameful 25-year high. The statistics also paint a stark picture of inequality with suicide disproportionately affecting people from lower socio-economic groups. Behind every number there is an irreparable path of devastation which touches families, friends and whole communities.
The Health Select Committee report points to our mental health services as a main area for improvement. A bereaved mother who gave evidence to the committee offered a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by too many when trying to access support: "My son wasn't hard to reach, it was the services that were hard to reach."
Having previously served as Labour's Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health, it is clear to me that our mental health services are under too much strain and close to breaking point. Many people have to battle at every turn to get help for themselves or a loved one. The report recommends that extra attention needs to be given to services for people who are vulnerable to suicide including looked after children and care leavers; young men and people from the LGBT community. The focus should be on early intervention services; access to help in non-clinical settings, and improvements in both primary and secondary care.
The report highlights the importance of connecting families and support networks with a patient's recovery, where appropriate. Professionals need better training to ensure that these opportunities are maximised. Although patient confidentiality is paramount, involving a trusted family member or friend can support and aid recovery, and could even save their life.
With responsibility for suicide prevention plans being devolved to local authorities, part of the problem that currently exists with suicide prevention is the lack of accountability. Worryingly, research published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self Harm Prevention in 2015 showed that 30% of local authorities did not have any form of suicide prevention strategy in place. The report found that in areas where there was a plan, implementation had been widely insufficient, and characterised by "inadequate leadership, poor accountability, and insufficient action." To remedy this the Government must show strong national leadership and ensure that there is regular and transparent external scrutiny, of all plans across our country.
The development and evaluation of suicide prevention policy will rely heavily on accurate and timely statistics. In this regard there is need for much more in depth data collection. Furthermore, early identification of suicide is crucial to allow rapid responses to emerging patterns, that could indicate clusters and trends which could help prevent further deaths by suicide.
The media also has a key role to play. The only way we will ever really get to grips with suicide prevention is by bringing about attitudinal change. We need a cultural shift in society to overhaul our whole approach to mental health and suicide. We must take a very close look at the language we use, the material that is available online, in print and on our airwaves, and the way people struggling with mental health are portrayed - whether it's stories about real lives in articles or dramatisation in TV series. It is the media that holds the reins to this vital revolution.
Just one example of how the media could report suicide more responsibly would be to universally discontinue the use of the term "commit suicide." The term is an unhelpful linguistic relic of a bygone era when attempting to die by suicide was a crime. It is a widely held belief among many mental health professionals, and families who have lost someone to suicide, that the negative connotations associated with this term reinforce stigmatising attitudes.
As our report concludes, suicide is preventable. I am hopeful that Ministers will take up the cause of suicide prevention with the urgency and vigour it so desperately requires.
Now must be the time for real change to stop this unnecessary and deplorable loss of life. Our report should provide some useful recommendations to inform this task.
Luciana Berger is MP for Liverpool Wavertree, President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, and a member of the Health Select Committee
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.)
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Rethink Mental Illness advice and information service is open 9:30 - 4pm Monday - Friday - 0300 5000 927. They have over 100 factsheets with easy to understand information on a variety of issues related to mental health
- CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. Call 0800 58 58 58 or visit thecalmzone.net
- The Mix is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41