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17.03.17

Government must act now to lower ‘unacceptable’ level of preventable suicides

The government must take “tangible action” and focus on better implementation of aims laid out in the Suicide Prevention Strategy for the policy to be successful, the Health Select Committee has warned.

In a report, it concluded that government funding for suicide prevention was welcome, but it may be too late to properly implement the strategy. Though plans have been put in place by local authorities, too often they were not being adequately acted upon.

There were also warnings that while 95% of authorities had a suicide prevention plan in place, “there is currently little or no information about the quality of those plans”.

The report added: “It is not enough simply to count the number of plans in existence – there must be a clear, effective quality assurance process and implementation at local and national level.”

The influential committee also called on the government to set out how it would make sure that funding is available for the actions outlined in the strategy.

It expressed disappointment that the government had not acted on the committee’s recommendation that all patients discharged from inpatient care should receive a follow-up in three days, a policy that they hope will go a long way in preventing suicide.

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the committee, said: “The clear message we have heard throughout our inquiry is that suicide is preventable. The current rate of suicide is unacceptable and is likely to under-represent the true scale of the loss of life.”

Another key section of the report underlined that information-sharing was currently inadequate as risk was poorly communicated or not discussed at all by care providers who could have protected them. One example, uncovered by the committee, found that 60% of people who presented themselves at A&E for self-harm did not receive a proper psychological assessment.

Dr Wollaston added: “If the government wishes to be truly ambitious in reducing the toll of suicide, there are many further steps which it could take, which we have set out in this report. The government must prioritise effective implementation of its strategy because without it, any strategy is of very limited value.”

Reaction

NHS Providers’ director of strategy and policy, Saffron Cordery, said the organisation welcomed the report, adding: “The committee is clear that unless dedicated funding reaches the front line, it risks being “too little too late” to successfully deliver this strategy.

“It is the responsibility of both government and commissioners to ensure this money reaches the right initiatives aimed at preventing suicide within the most vulnerable groups.

“A clear outline of how the government intends to make this funding secure against a tough backdrop of public health and community care cuts is needed.”

Cordery also argued that without appropriate funding, mental health providers will struggle to recruit the staff needed to deliver the measures that are needed to prevent suicides.

“As focus turns to implementation, it will be important to scrutinise local prevention plans to ensure they can be rolled out effectively with a joined-up approach between providers, local authorities and the voluntary sector,” she concluded.

 Also responding to the findings, the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN’s) professional lead for mental health, Ian Hulatt, said: “The funding is not getting through and little is known about the quality of local plans or their ability to reach the people who need support.

“In far too many cases, people who die are known to be at higher risk but this is not discussed with family and friends who could help. Despite our expert advice, the government is failing to improve this situation.”

Hulatt called on the government to make information-sharing a priority and “make the difference between prevention and tragedy” before it was too late, adding: “People at risk of suicide must get fast access to specialised treatment.” 

The RCN lead also said that mental health was an issue that needed to be addressed within the NHS workforce: “Nurses themselves are a high-risk group, due to the strain and responsibility of their role. Sadly, this situation is being exacerbated by the pressure on the NHS and thousands of unfilled nursing jobs.

“The government must go further and make suicide awareness training mandatory for health professionals working with high risk groups, beginning with training before registration.”

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt argued that the Department of Health “agrees with the committee that every death by suicide is a tragedy which has a devastating effect on families and communities”.

“We are taking action to ensure we quality-assure every local plan so they reach the most vulnerable people – and local authorities now are supported by record mental health funding, with big developments in the availability and quality of crisis care services as a result,” he concluded.

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