By Norman Lamb MP
On World Mental Health Day, the Prime Minister announced that she was appointing a ‘Minister for Suicide Prevention’ to tackle the country’s suicide epidemic.
It’s easy to see why this was welcomed by campaigners and charities. In 2017, a total of 5,821 people took their own life in the UK. Although suicide rates have broadly been falling over the last 30 years, suicide remains the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 and the single biggest killer of men under 45. It can affect people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds, yet 75% of all suicides are male – a shocking statistic that has changed very little in recent years. Worryingly, most people who die by suicide are not in contact with mental health services in the year before their death.
When 112 people die by suicide every week, the Government has a duty to show leadership. Appointing a dedicated minister is a welcome gesture but this in itself will do little to tackle the underlying mental health crisis which is driving so many people to crisis point. Reducing the stigma surrounding mental ill health and encouraging more people to seek help is only part of the picture. We need to address the root causes of mental distress and ensure that effective support is available.
Despite warm rhetoric, we are still a long way from real equality between mental and physical healthcare in the NHS. Long waiting times are common in under-funded services which are struggling to cope with the number of people seeking treatment. The mental health workforce is working under extraordinary pressure, yet the Government seems unable to get to grips with a chronic shortage of staff which is hampering efforts to improve care.
Effective support for children and young people is crucial. We know that 75% of mental health problems emerge by the age of 25 but an estimated 70% of children with mental health problems do not receive appropriate support. The Education Policy Institute recently found that 1 in 4 children who are referred to specialist services are turned away, usually because their condition is not considered to be severe enough. This is an utterly intolerable practice – it’s like telling someone with cancer to come back when they are at death’s door.
Sadly, there is little sign that things will improve any time soon. The Government’s feeble green paper will still leave most children and young people without the right support and fails to address the vital importance of early intervention to support those who have suffered trauma, neglect and abuse in early years.
If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the nation’s mental health crisis and high suicide rates, she must start by investing in properly-funded mental health services with a focus on early intervention and community-based support. The announcement in the Autumn Budget that mental health services will get an extra £2bn by 2022 is clever spin. In fact, this amounts to just 10% of the extra funding that the Government has promised to the NHS, and we know that this will be nowhere near enough to meet rising demand. Any less than £2bn would actually have reduced the share of NHS money going into mental health.
Across government, we also need a stronger emphasis on the social determinants of mental ill health and suicidal thoughts – including unemployment, poverty, poor living conditions and social exclusion.
But I want us to go further. I have been a strong advocate of the ‘Zero Suicide’ movement which challenges organisations to be far more ambitious in reducing the number of lives lost to suicide. In government, the Deputy Minister and I led the call for a Zero Suicide Ambition across the NHS – but the reality is that not enough mental health organisations have embraced this mindset.
This is not about setting pie-in-the-sky targets. Some incredible work has been done in the USA which shows that a significant reduction in suicides is possible. At the Henry Ford system in Detroit, they made a radical commitment to eliminating suicide using evidence-based interventions to improve care and reduce suicide risk. They called the approach ‘Perfect Depression Care’. It led to an 80% reduction in suicide, including some years where they actually achieved the ultimate goal of zero suicides. They changed the culture of the system so that suicide was no longer accepted as an outcome. I want every NHS organisation to show similar ambition.
Every suicide is a tragedy which leaves an indelible mark on society – not least the grief and bereavement of friends and family who are left behind. Suicide is preventable, but we need bold action to face up to the scale of the challenge.
If the new Suicide Prevention Minister wants to live up to her title, she must spearhead a national ‘Zero Suicide’ ambition to show that a single life lost to suicide is one too many.
Norman Lamb MP is the former Minister of State for Care and Support at the Department of Health.
As Health Minister, Norman worked to introduce crucial reforms to the care system, introducing a cap on care costs and ensuring that carers get the support they need. Norman led the drive to join-up our health and care system, with a greater focus on preventing ill-health. He also challenged the NHS to ensure that mental health gets treated with the same priority as physical health, introducing the first ever access and waiting time standards in mental health care for the treatment of common mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and for patients experiencing their first episode of psychosis.
Norman served as the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Health Secretary from 2015 to 2017, and is continuing his campaign to achieve equality for those who suffer from mental ill health.
If you want to keep up to date with Norman’s campaign to bring awareness, policy change and equal parity between physical and mental health, you can follow him on Twitter here.