First steps in meeting the challenge of deaths from suicide in Scotland – James Jopling

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Along with many other charities, the Samaritans in Scotland have broadly welcomed the new suicide prevention action plan published by the Scottish Government and new Minister for Mental Health, Clare Haughey MSP.  Her recent appointment is also welcome and the content of the final plan is undoubtedly testament to her insight and expertise in mental health, along with sharing a clear desire that we all have that there should be fewer suicides in Scotland.

And that is critical.  Because Scotland is still very much the poor relation compared to the rest of the UK in terms of the rates of suicide.  And whilst recent decline in numbers of suicides in Scotland are important, that rate of reduction has significantly slowed.  As the National Records of Scotland stated in their recent report on suicides in 2017, there has been not much difference between the numbers of suicides in three of the latest four years. So it is unclear whether the downward trend will continue.

That’s why it has undoubtedly been frustrating to not have a national plan on suicide prevention since the end of 2015.  Because the need to reinvigorate and reinvest in suicide prevention activity locally and nationally is more timely now than ever.

Suicide is preventable. But the actions that need to be taken to address this cause of death that takes more lives of people under 29 than all cancers in Scotland are spread across a range of government departments and higher risk groups.  Because although we know a lot about some of the most significant factors that can affect risk – for example a history of self-harm, levels of individual or community deprivation or a history of mental health conditions, no one thing points to a single easy solution to the damage that suicide does to our friends and families each and every year.  Around two people a day kill themselves in Scotland by suicide.  Every day.  And those people are spread across age and gender.  So at the heart of this plan must be work to better identify and support those at the highest risk.

We need people to come together nationally but also locally too.  We know that some good work is being done in communities across Scotland, however we no longer have a clear picture of it or how well it works. The formation of local suicide prevention groups and actions plans over 15 years ago undoubtedly contributed to the earlier decline in Scotland’s suicide rate. Yet now there is no oversight or control of what local funds are used on suicide prevention or what projects are taken forward. Our hope is that the Leadership Group can reinvigorate this vital work and ensure every local authority and health board once again places real value in having a local action plan.

We based our contributions to the plan on what we learnt from those most closely affected by suicide through a series of events across Scotland late last year. Participants, who had supported someone, lost someone or experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts themselves, recommended that support for those in crisis and those bereaved by suicide should be improved across Scotland. They also called for mandatory suicide prevention training for certain professions such as those who work in the NHS.  So we are very pleased to see specific and clear actions on all of these within the plan.

Of course, none of this can happen without significant funding and clear leadership. Throughout the development of the plan we were clear that a new, independent leadership group with real resources had to be central to creating change and re-building momentum. The subsequent announcement that the plan will be led by a National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group, with £3 million of additional funding, was therefore critical. These funds are important and we need to ensure that they are used to fund new, impactful and locally based approaches. We look forward to working with the Group to ensure that happens.

And finally, the target set that by 2022 suicides are reduced by 20% should be the start of this work – not the end.  There is an ambition to create a Scotland where no one affected by suicide is alone: where help and support is available to anyone contemplating suicide and to those who have lost a loved one to suicide that will make the biggest impact.  Because this has to be about more than targets.  It’s about the lives lost around us each and every day.  So whilst the plan and the welcome investment are a huge step in the right direction, the Leadership Group, the Chair and people who care about this issue at a local and national level need to use this a focal point for change. This is where we start.

James Jopling is the Executive Director for Samaritans in Scotland.