Mental Health Taskforce Report

Ruth Sutherland 

Here I share my journey at Samaritans, keeping you informed of the important work of our staff and volunteers, challenging perceptions and asking tough questions.

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The Mental Health Taskforce, an independent body commissioned by the NHS, published its report today, setting out its view of the five year plan for mental health. So what does this mean for suicide prevention?

The Taskforce sets out three areas of focus:

  • Recommendations to achieve equal status (parity of esteem) between mental and physical health
  • Recommendations for wider access, looking at other important areas of people’s lives (e.g. jobs, relationships, places to live)
  • Focus on tackling inequalities

The latest suicide figures show that 4882 people in England took their own lives in 2014. We have to reduce these figures and the taskforce recommendations are critical to help achieve this. People think more about their physical health than their mental health and we know there’s more funding for services and research for physical health. We know the reasons that people decide to kill themselves are complex, but there are stressors like prolonged periods of unemployment, debt, and relationship breakdown. And we know that men living in poor areas are ten times more likely to take their own lives than those living in better off areas. Suicide isn’t equal, but it could affect any of us.

The Taskforce paints an ambitious picture of improved care and treatment for people with mental health issues and we welcome this. But we know that to bring about a revolution in suicide prevention, we need to involve the whole community. 

One of the things we’ve been calling for, for a number of years are multi-agency suicide prevention plans to be in place and implemented in every local area of the UK and Ireland. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention Inquiry in 2014 found that around 30% of local authorities in England still did not have a plan. The Taskforce report has recognised this, and asked for new investment to be put in place to ensure every area has a plan by 2017. This is fantastic, but these plans need to be evidenced, implemented and effective, and there needs to be specific funding ring-fenced to help make it happen.

Action on suicide prevention needs to recognise a whole life approach. Some of the issues highlighted in the report include:

  • Half of all mental health problems are established by the time you’re 14 years old.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of maternal death, after cardiovascular disease
  • Only 50% of community mental health teams are able to offer a 24/7 crisis service
  • Stable employment and housing are both factors in maintaining good mental health

Focusing on people in crisis is essential but it isn’t enough. We need to stop people getting to crisis point in the first place. We need all parts of society involved so that we’re doing everything from teaching emotional resilience in schools, to providing excellent crisis care whenever people need it.  

We’re pleased to see the 10% target for the reduction of suicide, if it focuses attention and resource on the issue. But this attention can’t just be centred on mental health services.  We have to tackle the risk factors of suicide and we need Government leadership on the issue to achieve this.  We also need to help people build resilience to buffer against these risk factors and we have to get people talking about it.

We’re proud of our partnership with Network Rail and the wider rail industry. We’ve trained over 10,000 railway staff and this has had a ripple effect, reaching not just the railway staff, but their friends, families, and colleagues. We need other industries to take suicide prevention just as seriously. We need employees to create a culture where it’s safe to talk, and we need everyone to have the confidence and skills to talk or ask about suicidal feelings.

Our volunteers provide support for people struggling to cope. . We go where people need us,  in prisons, A&E and police custody suites to name a few.. We are acutely aware of the need for improvements in health care, but also in other areas, and we know that being there for people really does make a difference. 

The report highlighted the fact that a quarter of those who take their own lives had contact with a GP or other health professional in the final week of their lives and 28% of people had been in contact with mental health services within 12 months before their death. This provides a challenge to us all - what about the vast majority of people that weren’t in contact with any health services? We have to get more people talking and raise awareness of the issues.

In addition to much needed advances in care and treatment, Samaritans believes that emotional wellbeing needs to be at the centre of the national conversation, in order for us to make it easier to encourage people to seek help early. Stressing the value of talking as a means to find a way through problems can help people all their lives, as Samaritans volunteers can testify.

We have long known that some groups such as servicemen and women, who are at particular risk and need specialist support, have not had the help they need and we would like to know how this is to be addressed.

Suicide prevention targets, measures to tackle stigma and inequality and working to include disadvantaged groups on the margins of society are all valuable aims, as are highlighting the issues which lead to people struggling and falling into crisis. But we need more research to help us better understand the complex factors leading to suicide and self-harm. Samaritans works closely with academics that specialise in studying suicide and it is crucial that we find out more about why people are driven to take their own lives.

But, most importantly, we need to involve every sector of society in this debate, or we are only scratching the surface.