I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that the number of suicides in the UK, particularly amongst young people, represents a major challenge for government and society;
acknowledges the work that is taking place to address the issue;
calls for even more urgency to be shown in seeking to reduce the rate of suicides;
notes the danger posed in particular by websites which promote or give information about harmful behaviours such as suicide;
and calls upon the Government to adequately resource and promote child and adolescent digital safety.
For years this subject has been swept under the carpet. I believe it deserves a mature and thoughtful debate. Suicide is a significant problem in our society. Its impact is often sudden and shocking. While we can to some degree prepare ourselves for the death, through ageing, of elderly parents or the loss of loved ones through chronic illness, suicide catches us by surprise. Often there is no warning and we are left with a feeling of utter bewilderment. We ask: was it preventable? Were there warning signs that we failed to recognise? Was it simply a cry for help that went wrong? All of those are questions to which we will, regrettably, never receive an answer.
It can be seen that suicide touches the lives of many people and is, in every case, a tragedy both for the life that has ended and for the family, friends and community left behind. We must always remember that each person who has been lost to suicide has been someone’s child, someone’s parent, brother, sister or friend. Their passing leaves a wound that does not easily heal, even with the passing of time. In addition, those bereaved by suicide have special needs and require special support, for bereavement by suicide is itself a risk factor for suicide.
We cannot afford to ignore or be complacent about the prevalence of suicide and self-harm in the United Kingdom. Preventing suicide presents a serious socio-economic issue, as well as a political challenge. It is a problem that we all have a duty to address. There is a great need to change public attitudes and to increase awareness and understanding about suicide as a major public health problem that is largely preventable. Globally, almost 1 million people die from suicide every year. In the past 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is one of the three leading causes of death among those aged 15 to 44 years in many countries. Although suicide rates have traditionally been highest among the male elderly, rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of countries worldwide.
In 2011, 289 deaths by suicide were recorded in Northern Ireland, with the male suicide rate approximately three times greater than that of females.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his party on securing this important debate on the Floor of the
House. He references male suicide. Does he not agree that one of the more worrying statistics is that people who have just come out of prison are at a very high risk of committing suicide in the first two weeks of their release? Does he not agree that we should make better use of community and health care pathways to ensure that we can prevent and protect people who are very vulnerable, such as those coming out of prison?
I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of those pathways. It is vital that every effort be made to ensure that persons at a vulnerable moment in their lives—this is what the hon. Lady was talking about—receive the best possible support. I will develop that point later.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as prison leavers being vulnerable to suicidal tendencies, one of the groups at most risk are young males involved in the drug culture, and is it not odd, therefore, that some people are still campaigning to legalise drug use?
That is very true, and I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments. Again, I will seek to develop that point later.
The figures I gave a moment ago represent a welcome reduction on the highest-ever recorded figure of 313 suicides in Northern Ireland in 2010. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland continues to experience higher rates of suicide among adolescents and young adults, particularly young men, than any other part of the UK.
Deliberate self-harm is also a significant problem, with a growing number of cases being seen in hospital accident and emergency departments. Statistics from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety suggest that almost 500 patients presented at the hospital emergency department in Belfast with deliberate self-harm between April and June 2012. Many more incidents never come to the attention of health services at all. In 2011, the highest rate of registered suicides was recorded in the parliamentary constituencies of Belfast West and Belfast North. In my constituency, 18 lives were lost to suicide, 16 of them males.
Is my hon. Friend aware of an international study highlighting the fact that Northern Ireland has the highest incidence of post-conflict trauma of any post-conflict region across the globe, and that this contributes to the high level of suicide? That is evidenced by the fact that much of it is concentrated in the parts of Northern Ireland where the conflict was fiercest, and it is added to by the fact that many of the people suffering trauma served in the armed forces. What we need in Northern Ireland, under the military covenant, is a specialist centre for the treatment of trauma for those who have served our country.
Between January and September last year, 223 deaths by suicide were recorded in Northern Ireland, again with socially deprived areas in Belfast North and Belfast West worst affected. However, although we must concentrate particularly on Belfast North and Belfast West, where
the rate is highest, suicide has, worryingly, been spreading not only in urban communities, but into rural Northern Ireland—into those areas where people feel isolated and vulnerable to thoughts of suicide.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea whether there is a link between suicide and past membership of illegal organisations, and whether those who were inclined to carry out such violence have become so depressed that they take their own lives?
Once again, I hope to touch on that point. I believe that that link needs to be considered. Certainly, for many people who were involved in such activities—perhaps they were drawn into them and now, unfortunately, must live with the consequences for the rest of their lives—guilt can be a leading factor pushing them towards suicide.
The Bamford review on mental health promotion, published in Northern Ireland in May 2006, reinforced the need to prevent suicide. It found that in the 25 years from 1969 to 1994, more people died by suicide than as a result of the troubles in our Province.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his party on bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. He talks about the factors linked to suicide. Will he accept that mental health issues are another key factor linked to suicide and that MPs and others need to remove the stigma attached to mental illness so that people feel able to ask for the help they badly need?
I agree wholeheartedly with those remarks. The Bamford report highlighted the link with mental health. I agree that we must remove the stigma attached to mental health, as well as the stigma attached to suicide, because many families are deeply hurt by it.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of research carried out by Louis Appleby, the suicide tsar, showing that 75% of those who commit suicide have had no connection with mental health services, and that it is dangerous to focus suicide help and support only on mental health teams? If we do that, we risk failing to protect many of those who need our help.
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this matter and for commendably seeking to highlight it in one of the Committee Rooms. There is no one reason for a person coming to that place where they feel that suicide is the only way out.
I hope the hon. Gentleman realises how much appreciated his colleagues’ choice of subject is today. I declare two interests: I am joint president of a Samaritan branch, through past family links, and I am involved with the organisational charity, Papyrus, which campaigns to prevent suicide among young people in the UK. May I accentuate what he has said? People can feel as depressed in rural areas as they do in urban areas, and there can be no presumption about the reason. Teenagers can be
very depressed because of medication—I have had family experience of that—and university students because of the pressure of their studies and relationships. It can be for anybody at any time, and organisations such as the Samaritans and Papyrus ought to be known abroad, so that anybody can reach them on the phone.
I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I have found a lack of knowledge in the community about the help available through such agencies.
We community leaders must be willing to say, “This is not a taboo subject. We can talk about this.” The country must be willing to open up. We tell young people to open up when they have a problem or feel isolated, but we legislators must be willing to do the same, and not run away from the issue, treating it as something to be hidden or pushed aside.
I am delighted that my right hon. and hon. Friends have brought this debate before the House today—I know that I have support on this issue from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland—but I really feel that this is a problem right across the United Kingdom. As I pointed out at the beginning, in one year, 1 million people across the world reached the point where they took their own lives. That is very serious and we are not immune to it—not one part or region of the United Kingdom is immune and I can assure hon. Members that not one family is immune either. This issue can touch every family, no matter how rich or how poor. Every family can experience the very same pain and hurt that has been expressed to me. That is why we have secured this debate.
The report also found that, on average, deaths due to suicide since 2000 have exceeded deaths on the roads and concluded that suicidal behaviour places a heavy human and financial burden on society in Northern Ireland, with an annual cost to the economy of £170 million owing to work days lost and hospital admissions for attempted suicides and suicidal behaviour. Research undertaken by Mike Tomlinson of Queen’s university in 2007 found that the Northern Ireland suicide rate had grown since the mid-1990s, which was attributed to younger people, particularly men, taking their own lives.
The hon. Gentleman talks about young people. Does he know whether there have been any discussions between the devolved nations about preventing young people from accessing suicide websites? Such prevention work is crucial.
Once again, I am deeply appreciative of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and I wholeheartedly agree with him. We will endeavour to take up that point as the debate continues.
Tomlinson found that about 150 suicides were recorded annually between 2000 and 2004, but by 2006 that figure rose to 291. He argued that the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland might have brought its own problems. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that in 2011 there were 6,045 suicides among people aged 15 and over in the United Kingdom—an increase of 437 compared with 2010. The UK suicide rate increased significantly between 2010 and 2011, from 11.1 to 11.8 deaths per 100,000 of the population.
That trend was further reflected in Wales, which recorded 341 suicides—its highest rate since 2004. Scotland also saw an increase, from 781 deaths by suicide in 2010 to 889 in 2011.
I thank my hon. Friend for setting the scene so clearly for everyone in the Chamber. The suicide rates over the last few years, which he has outlined, cover the period of the economic downturn. Does he feel that, at this time especially and for that very reason—the economy and the downturn in jobs—there should be a greater focus on suicide across the whole of the United Kingdom?
I thank my colleague for his intervention.
Although I have given a lot of statistics—I will come to some of the causes in a moment—they can be very cold things. I want to draw the House’s attention, very earnestly and gently, to the fact that behind every statistic is a personal tragedy—a personal tragedy that a person reached the point where they felt that there was no other way to go; a personal tragedy because no one can fully understand the loneliness or desperation that a person feels trapped by whenever they reach the point at which they think that the only way out is suicide.
There is no one reason why people take their own lives. It is often a result of problems building up to the point where that person can see no way out to cope with what they are experiencing. Factors that have been linked with suicide include unemployment; economic decline; personal debt; painful and disabling illness; heavy use of, or dependency on, alcohol or other drugs; children and adults dealing with the impact of family breakdown; the loss or break-up of a close relationship; depression; social isolation; bullying; and poor educational attainment. Those experiences have been shown to make people more susceptible to suicide. It may be that a seemingly minor event becomes the trigger for them attempting to take their own lives—on many occasions not to die, but simply to get relief from their unbearable pain. Low self-esteem, being close to tears and not being able to cope with small, everyday events are all signs that someone is struggling to cope with overwhelming feelings. Yet it is often difficult to tell whether someone is suicidal or depressed, as people in crises react in different ways. Uncharacteristic behaviour can often be a sign that something is very wrong.
One of the main problems that I want to address in this debate is: where do people turn to for support and help? Let me first acknowledge the work done by our front-line health and social care professionals, and the effort that has gone into the development and delivery of suicide prevention strategies, which aim to identify regional risk factors, establish key objectives via a cross-section of organisations, and seek ultimately to reduce rates of suicide and self-harm throughout the United Kingdom. For example, in Northern Ireland, I appreciate our ministerial co-ordination group in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was established in 2006 to ensure that suicide prevention is a priority across relevant Departments and to enhance cross-departmental co-operation on the issue. I was delighted by the changes made by Minister Poots, so that instead of the group meeting on a needs basis, it meets regularly to provide the sustained effort and leadership needed to reduce the high rate of suicide in Northern Ireland. I commend him for taking a long-term, upstream intervention approach to the problem.
However, in addition to Government-led initiatives in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, credit must be given to the agencies and voluntary organisations working at the heart of our communities to provide a vital lifeline when one is needed most. I acknowledge the excellent work done by many Church organisations, which give spiritual counselling to many who feel that life is so burdensome that it is not worth the struggle. These organisations—whether Government agencies, voluntary agencies or Church agencies—have a vital role to play in complementing local mental and public health services. This work at the coal face is truly inspirational. I pay tribute to the men and women who dedicate so much of their lives to helping others.
I said earlier that people needed to know about the availability of those who are willing to help. I say that because about three weeks ago a conference was held in my constituency in Antrim after two suicides had taken place—it was not called by politicians, but by the community, because of a desire in the community to do something. I was delighted and honoured to be part of that occasion, but what I found out that day was that although a multitude of organisations deal with the problem, many in the community do not know about them. Many do not know where help can be got at the moment it is needed.
Over the past year I have had the pleasure of working closely with my right hon. Friend Mr Dodds with PIPS—the Public Initiative for Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm—a not-for-profit organisation in Belfast North that has been delivering suicide prevention and awareness training since 2008. Through my association with PIPS, I have come to understand how it believes that, through training local people to be more aware of the risk of suicide and of the sources of help available, our communities will be safer and more people will be saved from taking their own lives. Surely this must be all about prevention, because, unfortunately, there is no cure when suicide takes place.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. Does he think that there is anything the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Government could do to provide publicly funded advertisements on this matter on television in Northern Ireland, for example? Does he also believe that priests could raise the matter when they are preaching, to alert their congregations to the problem? Perhaps he will come to those points in his speech.
Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I will come to those points. I certainly have endeavoured, when speaking in congregations, to remind them of the loneliness that people experience when they are in that vulnerable situation. No one knows the depths of that valley; no one knows how dark is the night that they are walking through. There must be greater understanding, and we can gain that understanding if people talk to each other and express their own experiences, as is happening in Antrim. That is helpful not only for them but for our understanding and for that of the community.
Members will also be aware that I have spoken recently in the House about child and adolescent internet safety, following horrific reports in the media of young people taking their own lives as a result of cyber-bullying.
My hon. Friend referred to support groups. I have recently met members of Horizons, a local support group in Lisburn. It is doing excellent work on a voluntary basis, but it is struggling to get the funding that it needs. Many of its members have had family experience of losing a loved one in these circumstances, and they are well placed to provide the support that our communities need, because they have walked through that dark valley. Greater priority for the funding of such groups is essential.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. In fact, the motion
“calls upon the Government to adequately resource and promote child and adolescent digital safety.”
The motion goes wider than that, but resources are certainly a problem that such organisations need help with.
The internet and new media are prominent features in youth culture nowadays. Young people see the use of technology as a vital part of their social lives, and the online environment has created unique opportunities for learning, connection and communication. Almost 99% of children aged between eight and 17 access the internet, and 90% of children aged five to 16 have a computer at home. Although the risks created by the internet and new media have yet to be properly assessed, there is growing concern over the use of the internet for cyber-bullying and for normalising and encouraging suicide and suicidal behaviour.
The Byron review, conducted in 2008, entitled “Safer Children in a Digital World”, found that
“there is a range of material on the Internet that may present particular issues for specific groups of children and young people. This includes content or sites that promote or give information about harmful behaviour such as suicide and self harm”.
The report found that, although some children might be deterred from harmful behaviours by witnessing such content, or might find emotional and social support from others experiencing the same feelings, it was clear that for some children there were major risks. Sites providing information about suicide techniques, for example, could increase the chance of a suicide attempt being successful and decrease the chances of a young person receiving help.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the hosting of such sites is illegal in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The problem is that many of those sites are hosted outside the UK, where they are not illegal. Internet providers need to block access to the sites. They move them down the access chain when people google them, but they do not block access to them altogether. How can we ensure that access to those sites is blocked?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I intend to touch on that point in a moment.
The hon. Gentleman is covering lots of bases. One of the issues that we face as a society is that young people can become isolated from contact with other young people, other than through the internet or texting. That is a real danger zone. They retire to their bedrooms and they are not seen from one night to the next. Their communication with others is limited.
The exercise of parental and family responsibility, to ensure that youngsters are out and being monitored so that people can pick up signs that they might be led to suicide sites, is as important as dealing with the sites themselves.
I agree with the point that Simon Hughes makes. I was talking to folks at the weekend about how young people isolate and withdraw themselves. If we set our minds back to just a few years ago, we remember that we used to see children playing football on the streets, and little girls out with their prams. If we look at our streets today, we see very few children out there. So where are they? They are in their rooms. They are not with their families. In many cases, the internet has taken over their lives, and that leads to the isolation that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
When online discussions or communities emerge around harmful behaviours, there is a risk of what the Samaritans describe as an “echo chamber”, in which users reinforce each others’ behaviour and negative feelings about themselves. In a communication to me, the Samaritans stated that
“there are some aspects of the ways that individuals interact with one another online, through social networking sites or online chat rooms, that can place vulnerable people at risk by exposing them to detail about suicide methods or conversations that encourage suicide ideation. Indeed in recent years there have been several widely reported cases of individuals taking their own lives having used websites that have provided explicit information on suicide methods or have been used to facilitate suicide pacts. Restriction of access to information about suicide methods is an established component of suicide prevention. However, this is particularly difficult to achieve online not least because suicide related websites hosted abroad are legal in most other countries”.
The Samaritans have worked in partnership with major companies to develop practical initiatives to support people at risk from suicide online. In November 2010, an initiative was launched in partnership with Google to display the Samaritans helpline number and a highly visited telephone icon above the normal Google search results when people in the UK use a number of search terms related to suicide. The Samaritans also worked closely with Facebook to allow users to get help for a friend they believe is struggling to cope or feeling suicidal. We must express our appreciation to the Samaritans for doing this excellent work.
These pioneering initiatives are to be commended, but more must be done. The Department of Health suicide prevention strategy in England recognises the need to continue to support the internet industry to remove content that encourages suicide and to provide ready access to suicide prevention services. In Northern Ireland, the refreshed “Protect Life” strategy includes a new objective to develop and implement internet guidelines that seek both to restrict the promotion of suicide and self-harm and to encourage the circulation of positive mental health messages.
Online risks must be managed more effectively, and advertisements with hyperlinks to support services must be displayed whenever users discuss or search for information about harmful behaviour if we are to ensure that people in distress can access useful resources quickly.
I acknowledge that the Byron review calls for a shared culture of resilience with families, industry, Government and others in the public and third sector all playing their part to reduce the availability of potential harmful material, to restrict access to it by children and to increase children’s resilience. There needs to be a greater understanding of how young people use modern technologies and communications if they are to be engaged in respect of suicide awareness and prevention, and mental health and well-being.
In conclusion, the causes of suicide are multiple and complex, and they cannot be addressed by any one Government Department working in isolation. Recent years have seen a commitment by Government to deliver suicide prevention strategies throughout the UK, but these must be adequately resourced on a sustainable basis if the progress already made is to be maintained. While we must acknowledge the good work already taking place, there is, of course, always room for improvement, and I believe that efforts must be concentrated on making the internet a safer place for our young people.
I recognise that this is a particularly complex matter and that the challenges it presents are indeed multiple. None the less, they are challenges that must be overcome, for children have the right to be protected from all forms of abuse, violence and harm. Enhanced internet safety is only part of the solution to the growing problem of suicide and self-harm. Through a co-ordinated approach, we must effectively address the issues impacting on emotional health so that we reach a point where so-called “suicide” sites will no longer be attractive to vulnerable individuals and will be made naturally obsolete or unattractive to view. We need to think innovatively about what more can be done across government and the community to reduce the rate of suicide in the UK.
I trust that my right hon. and hon. Friends will deal not only with the issues I have touched on, but with the families of those who have experienced suicide, because they also need help.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the speech he is making in leading this debate and on the tremendous work he is doing to highlight the issue in this place. He has mentioned the refreshed “Protect Life” strategy, and it is good to know that that strategy is developing under devolution. He may just about remember that I was the Minister with responsibility for health at the time when that was launched in 2006. On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I emphasise and ask him to emphasise how important it is for the families of those with direct experience to be at the core of that strategy because they better understand the issues at stake and can inform us all about the best way forward.
Order. I wish to be helpful to the Chamber, and point out that Members are meant to speak through the Chair rather than to the individual Members concerned. I know that
some Members have not been on the Back Benches for a while, but I hope that they are back into the swing of being in opposition and will remember to speak through the Chair.
I concur with the remarks of Paul Goggins. I can honestly say that there was no better person than himself to introduce and bring in this sort of measure from the beginning. He certainly did sterling work on it, and we in Northern Ireland appreciate what he did, and want to carry it forward to the next step. Thus families in their grief, bewilderment and loss need help and should be at the very heart of whatever next step is taken. The emphasis on suicide prevention must remain, for as the Stamp Out Suicide! website plainly notes:
“once a suicide is completed, very sadly, there is no cure.”
I shall try to behave, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to address the Chair, as you rightly instructed us to do.
We in the House of Commons frequently find ourselves at loggerheads, and common ground is often hard to come by, but we unite—as a Parliament and as a country—in lamenting the number of people who die by suicide every year. I pay tribute to Dr McCrea and his colleagues for selecting this issue for debate, because it is so easy to go for other less difficult issues. The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service by choosing this subject and giving it a proper airing so that we can debate it and demonstrate to the country that we are focusing on things that matter a great deal. I thank him genuinely for that.
I noted what Paul Goggins said about the importance of families and their role. As he said, it is important to listen to them, to understand their perspective, and to recognise what they go through. Once someone has taken his or her own life, the impact of that lost life lasts with the family for the rest of their lives. We owe it to families to listen to them, and to do better in preventing suicide.
The hon. Member for South Antrim produced the shocking statistic that 1 million lives are lost globally, and told us that in many countries young people are now the highest-risk group. He also told us that males are more susceptible to suicide—both middle-aged and young men—and that suicide is the biggest single killer of men under the age of 35. That in itself is deeply concerning. We need to stop and think about the turmoil that is often associated with individuals in the lead-up to the moment when they make their decision. We have a responsibility to do all we can to address that.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of recognising the prevalence of self-harm and the disturbing trends that we are seeing. That is of real concern, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is a serious problem in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart wondered whether it was sometimes a post-conflict issue. I know that a lot of work has been done in relation to post-traumatic stress following conflict, wherever it takes place in the world, and the risk that young men and young women may
take their own lives as a result. I join others in paying tribute to organisations such as the Samaritans and Papyrus for their work in helping people at moments of real risk.
I think it is important to provide signposting, so that young people, from secondary school onwards, know where they can go for help. It should not necessarily lead to teachers, family or pastoral care workers, because young people may not want to share their problems with them, especially when the first signs of self-harm appear. We should also do much more to ensure that university health services provide cognitive behavioural therapies and similar services much more quickly than many are able to at present, because the lack of such services has been a real cause of crisis, tension and, indeed, increased suicide risk.
One of the things that I am determined to do while I am in this job is give mental health services, and access to them, the real priority that they deserve. Our first mandate to the NHS Commissioning Board gives mental health a much higher priority than it has ever had before. In establishing the principle of parity of esteem, we have asked the board to pay particular attention to access to mental health services in order to ensure that people with those problems have the rights of access that people with physical health problems have had for some time. Every life taken by suicide is one too many.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking a second intervention so soon after the first. He has rightly paid tribute to the work of the Samaritans, who undoubtedly prevent a huge number of people from taking their own lives and who do tremendous work in Northern Ireland. What public funding do groups such as the Samaritans, who do such tremendous work, receive from the Government?
I cannot give the hon. Lady precise figures here and now, but I will write to her and make sure she gets a full response to that legitimate point.
This debate serves as a timely reminder that suicide continues to be a major public health issue, particularly at a time of economic and employment uncertainty. The suicide rate in England is relatively low on international comparisons, and good progress has been made in reducing the rate in England over the past 10 years. That is something to be proud of, but it must not be the end of the struggle. We must be vigilant. About 4,500 people took their own lives in England alone in 2011, an increase on the previous year of about 6%. Although the three-year average suicide rate has remained steady since 2005-07, the rise in the number of people dying by suicide in 2011 is deeply worrying.
We know that suicide rates vary across the UK, and the hon. Member for South Antrim made the point that the suicide rate in Northern Ireland is higher than in England. In fact, it is the highest in the United Kingdom, and Scotland and Wales also have their own very real challenges. The coalition Government are working with the devolved Administrations to share evidence on suicide prevention and effective interventions. Suicide is still a major taboo. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of our collectively speaking up about the
subject. The way to reduce the number of suicides is not to comply with that taboo and keep it under wraps; on the contrary, we must tackle the problem and the surrounding issues head-on.
We published a new suicide prevention strategy for England in September last year. It was written to help to reduce the suicide rate and it prioritises the importance of supporting families, so that those who are worried about a loved one know where to go for help, and supporting those who are bereaved as a result of suicide. They must receive help. There are excellent organisations such as Cruse Bereavement Care—I should declare an interest as my wife works for it—that provide support for people who are bereaved.
The strategy is backed up by up to £1.5 million for research, and it highlights the importance of helping the groups at highest risk of suicide by targeting interventions in the right way and at the right time. In-patient services are getting better at that. The most recent national confidential inquiry into suicide and homicide shows that the long-term downward trend in patient suicides continues.
Giving greater priority to mental health services is also critical. We are championing parity of esteem for physical and mental health, and through our improving access to psychological therapies—IAPT—schemes we are treating more people than ever before for mental health problems. Through the Government’s NHS mandate, we have gone much further than ever before in emphasising the priority the NHS must give to mental health. The mandate also makes specific reference to the need for mental health services to seek to reduce the suicide rate among users of their services, although I take on board the point made by Mrs Moon: we must also be acutely aware that many people—I think she gave the figure of 75%—who take their own lives are not known to the statutory services. It is very important that the statutory services do everything they can, but that is not the whole problem; there is a very significant issue beyond that.
We also need to make sure there is enough information about treatment and support, and that it is freely available to those who need it, including those who are suffering bereavement following a suicide. A lot of that planning and work will happen locally, with local agencies deciding on how best to reduce the suicide rate and support families. Our recent strategy is not an instruction manual; it is more a tool to support local agencies in working out what is needed.
Suicide prevention will also be a priority for the new public health system. The public health outcomes framework has the suicide rate as an indicator. That is a horrible piece of jargon, but this project addresses what outcomes and results the whole system is trying to achieve, and one of them is the need to reduce the suicide rate. A shared indicator with the NHS outcomes framework also focuses on reducing the number of premature deaths of people with serious mental illness—such deaths also, of course, include suicides.
We are tackling stigma in relation to mental health, which the hon. Member for South Antrim rightly mentioned, with the brilliant Time to Change programme led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which is designed to reduce stigma and break isolation. A few months ago, we had a brilliant debate in this House when Members talked about their own experiences
of mental health. That, in itself, was very important in bringing the issue out into the open and recognising that successful people, as well as many others, suffer from mental health problems and it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Children and young people have an important place in the new suicide prevention strategy. The suicide rate among teenagers is below that in the overall population, but that does not mean it is not a problem. For example, suicide is still the most common cause of death in young men, as I mentioned earlier. In addition, about half of mental health problems begin to emerge by the age of 14.
I apologise for intervening, as the Minister was perhaps going on to deal with this matter. We have now heard four or five times that the level of suicide among young men is much higher than that among young women, but nobody has said why that might be. Is there an answer to that question?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would not want to indulge in cheap speculation about that. The statistics are clear on the prevalence of suicide among young men and clear that it is significantly higher than among young women. It is important that we carry out the research, which is why the Government have also committed to that as well; it is so that we gain a better understanding.
The Minister will be aware that research suggests that women and young girls are less vulnerable to suicide because they are help seekers, whereas young men are not and they will not articulate the problems they are facing. That is the major difference. Women and girls will go to their friends and talk about their problems, whereas men bottle things up so that they grow and grow and they can no longer manage them.
I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention. What she says makes sense and I am most grateful to her for coming to my rescue on that—
More people are coming to my rescue.
I am always ready to try to rescue, but on this occasion that was not necessary. If sufficient research does not exist on the extent to which people know where to access services, it would be really helpful if the Minister worked with local government and the health and wellbeing boards to try to ensure that such research was carried out. I have a strong feeling that lots of young people, including young men, do not yet know where to go. If they did know, there would be a much better chance that they would do something about their problems and not keep them all inside, with the worst consequences.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is right to say that ensuring that youngsters know exactly where to go to find help is really important. Gaining a better understanding of that must be a priority.
I wish to support the point made by Mrs Moon a moment ago about the reasons why
suicide is more prevalent among men. It was backed up for me by a recent piece of work carried out in my constituency that showed it is much more difficult to get young and middle-aged men to visit a GP or confide in someone about their health problems than to get women to do the same. The work showed exactly the same problem: a lack of willingness to seek out help early enough. That is a major problem and it needs to be dealt with by more education and information, particularly for young men.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that constructive intervention, and he is absolutely right.
The suicide prevention strategy also recognises that the media have a significant influence on what children do and think. As well as promoting responsible reporting in the media, the strategy emphasises the importance of working with the industry to tackle websites that encourage suicide. That is, in a sense, at the heart of the motion and of the points raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim.
Misuse of the internet to encourage vulnerable people to take their own lives is utterly wrong. It is deeply worrying that young people can easily be exposed to such pernicious material, but we should not dismiss the internet as a source only of harmful material. It also provides an opportunity to reach out to vulnerable people who might otherwise refuse support or information, including those young men who might not come forward. It is worth remembering that when used well the internet can be an incredibly valuable way of helping vulnerable people.
Only last week, I convened a meeting bringing together internet security companies, charities and Departments to explore how to protect children and young people from harmful suicide-related internet content. The industry representatives at the meeting told me about some of the good work they are already doing. For instance, McAfee informed me that it has valuable learning to share from its work with the Australian Government on an online safety campaign in schools. I think my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes will be interested to hear about that. McAfee has campaigned to get the message out to schools in Australia so that youngsters have information about how to seek help. There is a lot we can learn from that.
At that meeting—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it was terribly rude of me to interrupt and I apologise. Will he reassure us that when he convened that critical meeting with those who provide internet services, representatives from the devolved Administrations and from the Health Departments in Northern Ireland and Scotland were invited to attend? When we debate the United Kingdom, even though we have a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland I like to know, as someone who feels passionately about remaining in the United Kingdom, that we have joined-up government.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Those representatives were not invited to the meeting, but let me make a clear commitment that we will work with the devolved Administrations. I mentioned that earlier and it is in all our interests that we tackle the problem together.
At that meeting, I urged the security companies, such as McAfee and Symantec, to work collaboratively with interest groups who were present, such as Samaritans and BeatBullying, and internet service providers to sign up to a concordat that would help to speed up the process for reporting harmful content and the blocking of harmful websites. They gave me positive assurances that they would explore such a concordat, and in turn we as a Government would be willing to facilitate and support such an initiative however we can.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety is already making parental controls more accessible so that children can access less harmful content. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, who is the Minister responsible for children and families, will explain more about the work his Department has been doing when he sums up.
As I said at the outset, this is one of the issues that unite us all.
I thank the Minister for giving way, as he has been very generous in doing so. We have heard that there are a host of reasons why people are driven to suicide, one of which is alcohol dependency. Is the suicide prevention strategy working alongside the alcohol strategy so that there is a holistic, joined-up approach to dealing with some of these complex issues?
Yes, very much so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. In each area in England, the health and wellbeing boards will be able to co-ordinate all that work. In considering their strategic needs assessments, they will be able to identify issues relating to suicide and alcohol and drug dependency.
I hope that I have satisfied the House that the Government take suicide extremely seriously indeed and that we are taking real action to help. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Antrim for bringing the matter to the House’s attention.
I add my congratulations to those given to Dr McCrea on calling for this debate, along with his colleagues.
This is one of the few opportunities to address this important issue in the Chamber. There have been Adjournment debates and Westminster Hall debates, but a full Chamber debate is not a natural occurrence for this subject, so I very much welcome it. I begin with a quote from a recent inquiry undertaken by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. Someone working on suicide prevention in England said:
“So when you are having a discussion”—
as we are today—
“about what does suicide mean, and the numbers are very small compared to smoking or obesity, what is this about, well our deaths by suicide show…the ultimate loss of hope, the ultimate loss of meaning of purpose, yet they are an indicator. They may be small numbers, but they have a very big ripple impact and they are an indicator of what is happening further down that pyramid.”
This debate, as has been said, is timely, because of the publication of statistics by the Office for National Statistics which show that there has been an increase in suicides in the United Kingdom. In 2011, there were 6,045 suicides—an increase of 7.8% on the previous year. Across the United Kingdom, suicides have increased at different levels. In Wales last year, there was an 18.4% increase, and in Scotland, a 13.8% increase. However, Scotland has changed the data on which it bases its statistics, and it argues that if it had not changed statistical gathering information and the classification of deaths by alcohol, there would have been a small decrease.
In Northern Ireland, the figure is down slightly by 7.7%, from 313 to 289 deaths from suicide, but in 2009, it was as low as 260, so over that period there was an increase. In England, however, there is a 7.4% increase, but the figure varies across the country. In the south-east, it is 6%, but in the north-west, it is 9.3%, which will be of particular interest to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The highest risk group—and there has been a lot of talk about young people, particularly young men—is men aged 30 to 44, with 23.5 deaths per 100,000. The 45 to 59 age group has the highest rate of suicides among women, and there is also an increase in deaths for men in that group.
When the ONS says there has been a significant increase, it means that we can be 95% confident that the increase has occurred because of an underlying reason, and not just by chance. Our job is to look at that underlying reason. What is driving these increases?
Does the hon. Lady agree that when Members and others deal with families who are trying to come to terms with a suicide, very often there is a lack of help when those families try to identify within the family circle a behavioural change and problem that led up to the suicide? Sometimes they are racked with guilt because they cannot identify the problems that ultimately led to the suicide. Perhaps that is where attention and resource can be deployed.
I apologise to the House. I have lost a contact lens, and I have to wear spectacles. I cannot read my papers when I am wearing them, and I cannot see all hon. Members in the Chamber when I take them off. If I am not wearing them, hon. Members must alert me if they wish to intervene.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Families tear themselves apart over the question of why. They try to analyse behaviour, particularly in the weeks leading up to the death, to seek an understanding of it. Only if there is a suicide autopsy can one begin to look at the reasons behind a death. That is a complicated procedure that cannot be carried out for every death, but it can give some understanding of the wider reasons behind such deaths. I totally agree that the distress for families as to why the suicide has happened is horrific.
That is why the research to which we have access is important. Haw, Hawton, Gunnell and Platt found that the economic recession had a clear impact on suicide. However, the increase in the suicide rate may be offset by adequate welfare benefits; their finding was very clear on that. Other measures likely to reduce the impact of recession included targeted intervention for the
unemployed and membership of social organisations. They found that responsible media reporting was also important. Research at the university of Liverpool found that more than 1,000 people took their own lives during the 2008-10 economic recession in the United Kingdom.
There are ways in which we can begin to look at some of the problems that are staring us in the face and that may be causing some of the increase that is becoming apparent. Suicides began to rise in the UK in 2008, following 20 years of decline. Figures rose almost 8% among men and 9% among women in 2008, compared with 2007. The figures reflect the increased effect of the recession. I want to reiterate that research has found that there are risks associated with failure to provide adequate welfare benefits. There are currently high levels of distress and hopelessness caused by the changes in benefit that are about to come into force.
I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that the Prince’s Trust recently released figures which show that one in four of those who are in work are almost always or very often depressed. Among those who are unemployed the rate rises as high as 50%. Does she feel there should be a focus on young people, who are suffering more than most? Her colleague—I cannot remember his constituency—had an Adjournment debate in the Chamber on that very topic and he highlighted the issue as well.
The figures show that the increased number of deaths are among an older group of men, largely those who have not experienced unemployment before, who find unemployment very difficult to deal with and who despair about being able to maintain their family lifestyle, pay their bills and see a future where they can again be economically successful. We must be careful that those who are unemployed and who need to survive on benefits for however short a period are not made to feel failures, a burden on the state or pariahs in our society.
I know that Ministers will probably argue that the Government are doing wonderful things in relation to benefits but the Office for National Statistic figures highlight a very worrying trend. I hope there will be discussions between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to highlight the importance of Jobcentre Plus staff in particular being aware of claimants coming in who may well be suffering from depression and exhibiting signs of hopelessness and despair, and being able to take suitable preventive action.
Although the numbers are small compared with cancer, heart disease and dementia, suicide is a reflection of the overall health of a country and a community, and the ripple effects on the health of those impacted by it are very great. Other Members have spoken about the impact on families, but communities, schools and workplaces are also affected. There is an impact on people who have known the individual and people who identify themselves with that individual, which is where the risk is most dangerous.
May I return to my hon. Friend’s point about the age profile of recent suicide victims? In going through the research, has she found that, in particular, men of a certain age, perhaps in their late 40s or early 50s, who have young
children and who suddenly and unexpectedly lose their job, lose their self-esteem and cannot reposition themselves in what has traditionally been the caring-for-children role in the family setting? Does she think that there is a role for providing support to such people in regaining their self-esteem and repositioning themselves in order to get across to them that they have value in their new position, even if they do not get back their previous one, and to get them back on to a positive track rather than a downward spiral towards possible suicide?
My hon. Friend asks a complicated question. The research that I have looked at has considered the impact of suicide figures in recessions, not only in the UK but across the world, and it goes back in time to look at the great depression and recession that we had in the 1930s. As far as I am aware, no work has been done, certainly by that research group, on the impact on men’s self-esteem in assuming a caring role and responsibility within the family. Should I come across it, I will certainly pass it his way.
Last year, the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, which I chair, considered a number of issues that we have to address in relation to suicide. Every meeting brings the best authorities that we can find into the corridors of Westminster to explain and talk about the work that they are doing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the excellent work that she does in her all-party group. Has it looked into the specific issue of suicide in Her Majesty’s prisons and young offender institutions? Coming from a legal background, as I do, I am aware of that issue and wonder whether she has any observations to make about it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have not yet looked at that issue, but I pay close attention to it because I have Parc prison in my constituency. I hope at some point to secure an Adjournment debate on work that people are doing there on the Invisible Walls project, which builds and re-establishes links between prisoners and their families—their partners and children—because the best sense of rehabilitation that can be given to someone serving a sentence is the feeling that there is hope for a family life once they leave prison. That extremely important work is one of the ways we could focus on improving outcomes for people once they leave prison.
I suspect that the most vulnerable people are those who leave prison without a place to go to, in much the same way as, in my experience, soldiers who leave the armed forces go back to nothing if they have no family. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must take a great deal of interest in the people who have nothing, when they have a break from routine, such as leaving prison or the armed forces?
The Ministry of Defence commissioned a study by Dr Nav Kapur of Manchester university on suicide in the armed forces. He found that the largest number of suicides were by young people leaving the armed forces, usually without having completed their basic training or shortly after they had passed it. Further research is needed to confirm this, but the indications were that there was a feeling of hopelessness with regard to attempts to build a family in the armed forces,
that a sense of success and of identity had been lost, and that that was perhaps one of the motivations towards suicide. Additional funding is needed for that research to be completed, but that was the outcome of the best study that I have seen so far of suicide in the armed forces.
The all-party group has discussed how coroners record suicide and the importance of accurate suicide reporting. I cannot stress that enough. One of the problems is narrative verdicts, which were introduced as an addition to a statutory verdict. If someone died in the custody of the Crown, for example, they allowed for a narrative of that death to teach lessons about how it had happened. Instead, however, they have replaced the verdict and become a verdict in their own right. Often, the death of someone who takes their own life by tying a ligature around their neck is not recorded as a suicide, because the appropriate word has not been used. The Ministry of Justice needs to work on this area. I know that it is doing so and I hope to meet the chief coroner soon to see how we can make progress.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The number of narrative verdicts in England is growing. One of the ways in which they are avoided in Northern Ireland is the decision taken five years ago by the coroners service not to hold inquests on suicides, but to just record them and not put the families through an inquest unless the public interest or another family requirement demands it. That means that there has been more sensitivity than the false sensitivity accorded to narrative verdicts, which then lead to flawed statistics.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was not aware of that development in Northern Ireland, and I would like to spend some time examining it. The root trauma for many families who have experienced such a death is sometimes renewed, along with the publicity, up to a year later, which makes it very difficult for them to cope and which sets them back in the progress that they have made in grieving. Many have found it extremely difficult, so I will look at the information he provides, for which I thank him.
The all-party group has looked at the cross-Government strategy to prevent suicide in England. I will come back to that later, because it is a most important issue. We have also looked at suicide and bereavement. We talked to a number of families who have been bereaved by suicide and every one of them mentioned the importance of a Department of Health document called, “Help is at Hand”. Sadly, many Members do not know about this fantastic resource; it is not appropriately distributed and many families never get access to it. We have to find a way of getting that booklet out to people. The Welsh Assembly is looking to translate it and produce a Welsh language edition for Wales. We are also considering whether coroners and the police force would be appropriate groups to distribute that information.
We have also looked at the impact of police investigations. As Members will be aware, when a sudden death is reported, the police investigate initially under the murder manual. Families are therefore further traumatised by the feeling that they are under suspicion for the death. Once it is decided that it is a suicide, the police sometimes walk away and the family are left with no help or support and no sense of where they are supposed to go.
A suicide death is a lonely death because people stay away; they do not know what to say or how to approach the family. Often, the support that families desperately need is not there. That isolation and lack of information add to the risk of further suicides. It is important that people have ongoing support from within their community and from statutory services to see them through the grieving process.
We have also looked at the use of sport to reach out to young men. This point refers back to the question asked by Bob Stewart about the deaths of young men. It is important to give young men role models who have had difficulties in their life and who have contemplated suicide, despite success. Sports personalities have been particularly effective. We spoke with Ernie Benbow from State of Mind Rugby and Greg Burgess, the Choose Life co-ordinator for north Lancashire. They demonstrated how successful the use of sportsmen had been.
The hon. Lady’s eyesight is better than she thinks. Does she agree that TV soaps can play a key role in highlighting the issue of suicide and prevent viewers from committing suicide?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. There is a risk in how suicide scenes are written in soaps. There have been incidents in which a death by suicide in a soap opera has led to copycats and social contagion. The writing must be extremely careful. I know that many soap opera writers take their responsibility extremely seriously because they are aware of that risk.
There has been much talk about recipe websites. This week is internet safety week. It is extremely important that every Member of this House goes into schools in their area and talks to young people about staying safe on the internet. I went to Bryntirion junior school in my constituency last week and I asked a group of youngsters how many of them had ever received offensive material on the internet and how many of them had felt frightened, bullied or scared by what they saw. Every hand in the class went up. That is a world that we all escaped, but it is our duty to build awareness and protection in that world.
The work of the Samaritans is second to none. I want to highlight the work that it has done with British Transport police and Network Rail on the prevention of suicide on the railways. They have identified areas that have particular problems and trained their staff to be highly vigilant. They now provide support to people who enter their railway stations if they feel that there is a risk. That is a fantastic move forward.
I want to consider briefly the impact that the health and social care changes will have on the new suicide prevention plan for England. The all-party group carried out an inquiry into that. We issued a call for evidence that went out to all local authorities and directors of public health, via primary care trusts, local authorities and PCT clusters. That was followed by four evidence sessions in which we took evidence from representatives of the devolved nations, six areas of England and the voluntary sector.
The report concluded that the future of local suicide prevention plans in England depends on leadership and local champions, the identification of suicide prevention as a priority, availability of resources, and the long-term survival of suicide prevention groups already in place. The future of local suicide prevention plans in England is fragile and often relies on committed and dedicated individuals. That such plans are not a statutory requirement of the new national suicide prevention strategy is a major barrier to their survival, and that is particularly true when entering a time of restricted spending within local authorities. If something is not a statutory responsibility, often it will be bypassed or shelved.
There is no guarantee that health and wellbeing boards will address suicide prevention, or that existing plans will survive or be replaced. What will happen in areas where there is no suicide prevention plan and no history of taking an interest in the issue? In areas with no local champion, suicide prevention might be overlooked completely. We are talking about a suicide prevention postcode lottery, which is, in part, reflected in figures that show increases in suicide, differentiated across the United Kingdom.
There is no formal mechanism in the suicide prevention plan for England for suicide prevention groups to report directly to health and wellbeing boards. Without such a link, suicide prevention might not reach the agencies, and groups will be working in isolation, undermining their value and jeopardising their future. Engagement with the police, GPs and coroners is vital, yet in many areas such engagement is poor, patchy and inconsistent. Self-harm prevention and specialist bereavement services remain poor in many areas of the country.
Evidence from Northern Ireland demonstrates the importance of involving community organisations and the voluntary sector in suicide prevention. The existence of suicide prevention implementation groups in every locality was critical to Northern Ireland’s success and ensures that suicide prevention is not left to chance. The leadership at Government level highlighted by the hon. Member for South Antrim is also critical. Northern Ireland is making a difference.
In Wales, sadly, ministerial statements allocating responsibility for suicide planning were not published, and mandates were passed to local authorities but not implemented. That highlights the importance of national leadership, which comes up time and again in ensuring consistent implementation and showing what can result where no suicide prevention plan is in place. My local authority in Bridgend, however, is an exemplar of best practice and best planning. It learned a salutary lesson of the importance of such planning, which it now does excellently.
Evidence from Scotland highlighted the strength of a co-ordinated national approach to implementation—the Choose Life strategy—with the appointment of a
co-ordinator in every local authority together with national funding and national leadership. The Minister of State, Department of Health, kindly gave an address at the launch of the report by the all-party group on suicide and self harm prevention, and has agreed to respond to that on behalf of the Government.
Health and wellbeing boards need direction because otherwise we will end up with a hotchpotch of disorganised and unconnected polices, many of which have no evidence base. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is commissioning guidance for commissioners of self-harm services, and perhaps the Department of Health could look at doing the same for suicide prevention.
Workers in the field of suicide prevention are dedicated and committed, but isolated. Our inquiries showed the need to share best practice nationally, and in the near future we hope to hold a conference in House of Commons to facilitate networking so best practice can be shared and so that we do not constantly expect people to reinvent the wheel. We will go back and look later at the effect of the suicide prevention plan for England and the impact of the reorganisation in England.
I mentioned briefly the importance of not linking suicide just to mental health services. The Appleby report of 1999 suggested that 75% of those who commit suicide are not known to services. That is important. We must not always look for a mental health link. If we do so, we will neglect to provide services that address a large number of people who take their own lives.
The debate is important. Suicide reflects on society as a whole. It can affect any hon. Member and any family. As the hon. Member for South Antrim has said, it can affect people whether they are rich, poor, successful, young or old. The sad tragedy that unites them all is that they are lives wasted, and lives we should set out to save.
Order. The debate will finish at 5.55 pm and the two Front Benchers still have their winding-up speeches to make. Will hon. Members therefore be mindful when they are making their contributions so we can get everybody in?
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I pay tribute to Dr McCrea and all Democratic Unionist party Members for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. I am sure they were tempted to debate many other issues, but it is important that we discuss suicide prevention, which is a crucial but difficult issue.
Yesterday, I spoke of some of the most difficult times in my life. I was lucky to have the support of a loving family and great friends, but many unfortunately do not have that. Before being elected, I worked in the hospice movement. In that time, I got to know a lot of the patients well, and, sadly, death became a norm—I did not want to use that word, but I am sure hon. Members understand what I am getting at. Bereavement is always difficult, but suicide bereavement is a different type of bereavement altogether.
Sadly, I say that from personal experience. When I was in the sixth form, I remember vividly walking in and a friend saying to me, “Have you heard about that boy?”—I will not mention his name. He had taken his own life because he had been bullied at school. I remember all the students sitting in the common room in complete and utter shock. All I could think about were the questions going around in my head. What could I have done? Why did I not spot that he was in that difficult place? If I am honest, those questions still haunt me today. In more recent times—since I have been elected as a Member of Parliament—there was the very sad case in my constituency of a father who killed his entire family and then himself.
The suicides I have seen and experienced have had a tremendous effect on the people who are left behind. That is why the debate is important, but more importantly we should act and not just talk about suicide. We must also start right at the beginning and change people’s attitudes. How many times have hon. Members been on a train that has been delayed because somebody has taken their life, and the instinct of some passengers is to moan about the delay, forgetting that somebody has lost their life?
Hon. Members have spoken a lot about attitudes to mental health. I am very proud of the fact that a lot of work has been done in the Chamber to address that. It is a good start to try and take away that stigma. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Walker and Mr Jones, who have spoken openly about their own personal battles. As hon. Members have said, however, suicide is a much wider subject than just mental health; it can be about finance, careers or family breakdown. It is important that we address all those issues, which is why I welcome the fact that the suicide prevention strategy is in place. It is important that the strategy is not just a piece of paper; it has to be backed up by action, and it is good to see that happening. Crucially, it is partly about identifying the risks.
I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. In January, suicide-proof fencing was installed at a multi-storey car park in Nelson in my constituency, from which eight people have died in the past 10 years and a further 18 people have had to be talked down by police. I raised this issue on the Floor of the House in October 2010 in an Adjournment debate led by Mrs Moon, yet it still took the car park owners years to act. In addition to what my hon. Friend is saying, does he agree that businesses have a key role to play in identifying risks?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right: we need to do everything we can—talking to individuals themselves or lessening the risks—to identify those areas. A lot of work has been done in the prison system to try to improve cells to reduce risks. Businesses also have an important role to play.
It is important that the strategy targets specific groups who we know may be vulnerable. Targeting young people will be important, because we want to change attitudes
in the future. We also have to look at why so many young men are committing suicide. We have been talking about mental health, but let us face it: men are not very good at talking, and that is part of the problem. As we move into the digital age and we all spend so much time on our computers, being used to talking with others will lessen over time. I fear that we will have a generation who will be even worse than the current one in talking about their problems.
Improving access to “talking therapies”, the strategy’s four-year plan, and expanding it to all ages and different groups, is important. From my own experience, I know that we need to ensure that there is as much work on school intervention as possible to deal with bullying and violence. We must allow people to talk about the threats they feel, whether they are sexual abuse or bullying at home. We also have to remove barriers for people who are disabled, or who have mental health or other long-term conditions. We want to make them feel that they can play a full role in our society and do not become isolated.
Areas that require emphasis have been highlighted by a constituent of mine. I pay tribute to Mike Bush. He and I are unlikely friends. He describes himself as “red socialist”, but he and I have become very good friends and I have a huge amount of respect for him. He has done tremendous work in this field and is an active member of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self harm prevention. On many occasions, he has highlighted the importance of working with bereaved families. I welcome the fact that the strategy gives greater prominence to measures that support those families; being there and helping them to cope with a family member whom they are worried might commit suicide, and helping them cope with the aftermath of someone who has committed suicide.
Getting better information through the research that is being offered can only be a good thing, but the emphasis must be on support, and I completely agree with the hon. Member for Bridgend that we need to ensure good national provision. We need to ensure that suicide prevention measures are available in every part of our country. In particular, bereavement support needs a suicide angle to it, because it really is very different. In my time at the hospice, I saw how fragmented bereavement services were around the country, but specific suicide bereavement support is even more fragmented.
I hope that as the strategy develops we will continue to work with the many wonderful organisations we have in this country, many of which have been mentioned today, such as the Samaritans. The APPG is a great start, bringing together a coalition of organisations with a wealth of experience, but it is also important that we listen to family groups that have been through this dreadful experience. What makes Martin House children’s hospice such a wonderful organisation is that it is parent-led. The parents describe the care they need, and that is why it can offer such wonderful support. In the same way, the best strategy for dealing with suicide will come from those families who have experienced it.
We need action on cyber-bullying. Bullying has existed in schools for many years, but it has taken on a different form now. People can be bullied at school, but when they get home it continues through the social networking sites and the computers in their bedrooms. In a sense, these children and young people are suffering
from a silent bully. The suicide websites have been touched on. We must do more to close them down completely.
I hope that we can offer further training for organisations and—perhaps—the police in helping them to deliver that bad news. I have had several constituents tell me that they almost felt sorry for the police officer delivering the news because it was so difficult. It is important that these organisations be aware of the wealth of information out there. I am glad that the “Help is at Hand” document has been mentioned, because it is not used enough.
In conclusion, suicide is tragic in every sense: the loneliness of the person doing it, the long bereavement for those left behind, the guilt they suffer for years after and the great risk that they themselves might go on to commit suicide. It is crucial that we face this risk. This debate is just the start: let us now address and act on it.
I am pleased to follow Stuart Andrew, who spoke about the impact that suicide can have. He mentioned a memory of his school days. In preparing for this debate, I, too, reflected on my first acquaintance with suicide. At school one day, we discovered that a chap in my class in the third year had died by suicide. I experienced feelings of absolute bewilderment and shock that someone who had been with us only the previous day—playing a normal role in school and taking part in normal activities—was gone from us. I remember racking my brains and feeling totally bewildered. What had caused it? Were we missing something? That vivid memory, which will never leave me, had an enormous impact on me.
Just today, a friend of mine related to me the sad news of the death by suicide over night of a mutual acquaintance, and again those feelings of shock and bewilderment came back. I am sure that every hon. Member can relate to this issue in some shape or form. I know that some have experienced personal loss through death by suicide. It is very painful, but it is right that we talk about it, so I am glad of this opportunity to say a few words. Only by highlighting this issue of suicide and talking about its causes and what prompts people to take their own lives can we in some way help others not to go down this path. We need to talk about what we can do in government and society and through working with voluntary community groups to help these vulnerable people.
I want to talk from my perspective as the Member for Belfast North, which has been mentioned a number of times. It has one of the highest suicide rates of any part of the United Kingdom, with 25.2 deaths per 100,000 in the period 2006 to 2011. In the last five-year period for which we have figures, from 2007, that figure crept up to 25.9 per 100,000. As has been said, only the constituency of Belfast West has a higher rate. Those rates are high for Northern Ireland, which has high rates compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I therefore know about this issue from my constituency surgeries, as well as from meetings with the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots, from delegations that I have led of families bereaved by suicide and from my work with groups such as PIPS, which my hon. Friend Dr McCrea mentioned—I commend
him on his excellent speech in introducing this debate—and others that do such tremendous work in Belfast North. They include Lighthouse, FASA—the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse—and many other charities and Churches.
Those working in such organisations do enormously dedicated work in difficult circumstances, often volunteering and bearing a great emotional burden every day, as they cope with young people, middle-aged people and older people who are going through difficult times, as well as counselling and helping in a practical way families who have been bereaved. This work takes a great toll on the volunteers and others working in such organisations. I commend them publicly for the work they do on behalf of us all.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I speak to people working in those organisations, I am told that this issue comes up time and time again. It is very difficult to give answers to families who are struggling to cope with the nature of the passing of their loved one. Often it is hard to find any answer that can satisfy—it is just not possible to do that—but in the long run, the work these organisations do provides enormous consolation, help and support. The work of the Samaritans has been mentioned. Simon Hughes mentioned Papyrus, and there are many, many others. It is right to put on record our tremendous debt to such organisations and the people who do such tremendous work.
The new suicide prevention strategy, which was launched in September 2012 here in England and Wales, is excellent. The chair of the advisory group, Professor Appleby, who has been mentioned, has said:
“Suicide does not have one cause—many factors combine to produce an individual tragedy.”
“Prevention too must be broad—communities, families and front-line services all have a vital role.”
That is absolutely right, and that is why our motion today talks about government, community and society—all of us—working together to try to prevent suicide. The Samaritans chief executive, Catherine Johnstone, has made an important point—I suppose this sums up what we are trying to get at today—which is that
“suicide can be prevented by making sure people get support when they need it, how they need it and where they need it.”
We know that that is very difficult and complicated to put into practice, because as has been said—Mrs Moon mentioned this and the Minister reiterated it—75% of those who die by suicide were not known by, or in contact with, social services. This is not just a simple matter of saying that it is about people who are having mental health problems and who are known to the various agencies; that is often not the case at all.
As I have said, we have a particular problem in Northern Ireland, where death by suicide has gone up by 100% in less than 15 years. Some 300 people each year are dying by suicide in the Province, with men three times more likely to die in that way than females. I shall discuss some of the reasons for men being more prone to taking their lives and for their reticence in coming forward.
Lady Hermon asked the Minister a question about the amount of money that was being spent. I am glad to say that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland has spent £32 million over the past six years on suicide prevention under the Protect Life strategy. That money has been extremely helpful, and it has been well spent on helping some of the groups that I have mentioned.
Of course, money can do only so much, because of the broad range of reasons that lie behind suicide. I will not go over all the issues that have been mentioned, but I will deal with one or two of them. As well as social isolation, there is the problem of drug misuse, which my hon. Friend Sammy Wilson mentioned. In Rathcool and elsewhere in my constituency, good work is being done to try to reach young people with drug problems and to counter those problems. We are finding that a lot of young men—again, it is particularly young men—who get themselves into that situation end up attempting to commit suicide or actually dying by suicide. Problems with alcohol abuse are also a factor.
I also want to draw attention to a piece of research recently carried out by Mike Tomlinson of the school of sociology at Queen’s university. The key finding of his study entitled “War, peace and suicide: the case of Northern Ireland” was that
“the cohort of children and young people who grew up in the worst years of violence…have the highest and most rapidly increasing suicide rates”.
Those generations were the most acculturated to division and conflict, and to externalised expressions of aggression. The report continues:
“The transition to peace means that externalized aggression is no longer socially approved. It becomes internalized instead.”
My constituency of Belfast North probably suffered more than any other constituency in Northern Ireland—that could be true of Belfast West as well, but I can speak only for my constituency—during the period euphemistically known as the troubles. That was a heinous, horrible period of our history, with its violence, blood-letting, murder and mayhem. Today in Belfast North, and in Belfast West, we are still paying the price for that period of violence and bloodshed. Young men and women are still dying, as are middle-aged men and women, as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Nowadays, they are dying not as a result of murders committed by paramilitaries, but as a direct result of the troubles because, having been brought up in a culture of violence, they cannot cope in this period of relative peace.
Is the despair of some of those people accelerated by the fact that they are lonely? Does the fact that they are away from their families and from
society, for example, act as a catalyst? Does their loneliness gear up the despair that makes them take their own lives?
It is difficult to be too specific, as every individual’s case is different. Undoubtedly, however, one of the biggest factors, particularly in my constituency, is loneliness and isolation, along with drugs and alcohol. That combination, together with the context in which people have grown up, can often become a too powerful and overwhelming set of circumstances with which to cope.
Particular issues, then, arise in Northern Ireland and my constituency, and they might be different from many cases in England, Wales and Scotland. We have this added problem and pressure of coming out of the period of awful violence that we suffered. Only today, as we look back at the research and work done, do people realise that that period was so awful that we are still living with the consequences. Indeed, people are still dying, even today, as a result of what happened in that period. Bob Stewart talked about the experience of soldiers—he was right to highlight that—and it applies to people who served in the security forces, too.
On the issue of how this affects family members, I am thinking particularly of a dear lady who had lost a number of her family members, including two children, to suicide. She told me that she feared for other members of her family because of the increasing prevalence of family members copying what other family members or their close friends had done. The problem is exacerbated not only by sites on the web that encourage suicide but even by Facebook, when an insidious form of peer pressure can be applied.
One big problem is when anniversaries are marked. We must do some work to highlight the risk of anniversaries and the fact that they are not best marked by further deaths. That key piece of work must be undertaken.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and some families have told me that they dread an anniversary coming up. They sometimes sit up for days on end watching over their loved one in case something happens. They are very aware of this problem as anniversaries are approached.
I want to mention the excellent work done by the integrated services for children and young people programme on the Shankill road in my constituency. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland visited that project just last week, and the shadow Secretary of State, Vernon Coaker, who I am pleased to see in his place on the Front Bench, has also visited the Spectrum centre in the Shankill, and is aware of the great work done by Nicola Verner and others. Immensely important work is being done trying to help families that have all sorts of problems and needs. Intervention at an early stage is carried out, helping and supporting families as youngsters go through school and into the teenage years. Excellent work is being done by many organisations, much of it helped by Government. We just want to see that work consolidated and, if possible, increased.
I am conscious that other Members want to contribute, so I shall make my last point. A number of families raised with me the point that when young people go to an accident or emergency centre or to their GP and are concerned about their state of mind and vulnerability, it would be a good idea for them to have somewhere like a place of safety—somewhere they can go to and be put in contact with others who understand what they are going through. They should not just be given a piece of paper as a prescription and told to come back in a week’s time. They need somewhere to go to where they can talk to people; that is vital. I commend the Minister from the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for taking this issue on board.
One of the most helpful developments has been the engagement of the Samaritans in A and E departments. That has really made a difference, especially in self-harm cases. Where the nursing staff might be too busy to give up time, the Samaritans might be able to provide that time and support, which would be an excellent move forward.
I agree. That shows the importance of the excellent work the hon. Lady does as part of the all-party suicide prevention group to share best practice, as there are bound to be lessons we can learn from each other.
I commend the work that is being done. The Health Minister in Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots, has taken a close personal interest in the issue. He recently held a workshop for workers in the community and voluntary sector, and he has also met a number of family support groups. He has tried hard to raise the profile of this issue. It is now taken very seriously across the board in Northern Ireland—by all the political parties, and in the community and voluntary sector—and I think it important for Members to take the opportunity to highlight it here as well. It is one of the biggest problems that we face, certainly in my constituency.
I commend and thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and all those, in my constituency and elsewhere, who are dedicated to trying to prevent suicide.
I congratulate Dr McCrea on opening the debate so ably. As we have heard, suicide is a particular problem in Northern Ireland, but the problem exists throughout the British Isles. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Moon, Stuart Andrew and Mr Dodds on their extremely thoughtful contributions.
It is easy to blanket a debate on suicide in sociology jargon, but the truth is that, while any death in a family is tragic, there is something about suicide that is uniquely tragic. I say that as a mother. It must always leave family members asking themselves, “Is there something that I could have done? Were there signs that I could have noticed?” If suicide is a cry for help, family members must be left asking themselves until the end of their lives, “Why did I not hear that cry in the first place?” There is certainly something peculiarly tragic about suicide.
Of course, the individual causes of any particular suicide are never straightforward, and they are certainly not amenable to any top-down, one-size-fits-all, command-and-control solution, but I think it is agreed across the House that positive changes in society can make a difference to individual lives, and that we can offer even better support to bereaved families.
We know that suicide is not just a matter of mental health; however, it is related to mental health issues. I stress that Labour is committed to tackling the stigma attached to mental illness. One in four of us will suffer a mental illness at some point in our lives, and, as has been said by my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, the leader of my party, mental illness
“is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age.”
I should be grateful if Ministers could give me some assurances about mental health spending. According to some indicators, it has been cut in real terms. It is difficult to develop an effective suicide prevention strategy unless the basic spending is there.
I think that, once we have cut through the sociological jargon, it is clear that the recently rising levels of suicide must be related to the fragmentation of families and societies. Once upon a time, a generation ago, young people could reasonably expect to live in the same street as their mothers and other relatives, or around the corner from them. Young men growing up could reasonably expect a secure job, probably the same as that done by their fathers, and perhaps, in some parts of the country, in the place where many members of their community worked. That increasing fragmentation of families and societies—which is not the fault of any political party or any Government, but is partly due to the nature of the society we live in and to globalisation—must lead to less resilience in families and communities, and must make the issue of suicide more pressing.
As Members will have heard, the latest suicide figures issued by the Office for National Statistics for England and Wales show an increase in the number of people who have taken their own lives. In particular, there appears to have been a significant increase between 2010 and 2011. As we heard in a number of contributions, historically more men complete suicide attempts. We have also heard interesting contributions about the rise of cyber-bullying triggering suicide. There was a very sad case here in London a few weeks ago. A girl committed suicide because she was very upset about the pictures of herself in a compromising position that were going around via mobile phones and on the internet. We have also heard about the particular problems of suicide in prisons and young offenders institutions.
Some Members tentatively tried to explore why men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives. In England, for men under 35 suicide is the second most common cause of death, and that is clearly a particular issue in Northern Ireland. In the 1990s, suicide rates for young men aged 15 to 24 reached an all-time high. They were at the highest levels since the 1920s. Research by both the British Medical Journal and Mind found that during times of recession the mental health of men is put at particular risk. Mind’s YouGov survey found that almost 40% of men are worried or low at present, and the top three issues playing on their minds are job security, work and money. The report identifies unemployment as increasing the
risk of suicide among men under 35; young men who took their own lives often did so in their period of worklessness. The chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, has said:
“The recession is clearly having a detrimental impact on the nation’s mental health but men in particular are struggling with the emotional impact. Being a breadwinner is something that is still crucial to the male psyche so if a man loses his job he loses a large part of his identity putting his mental wellbeing in jeopardy. The problem is that too many men wrongly believe that admitting mental distress makes them weak and this kind of self stigma can cost lives.”
The reasons for committing suicide are complex and often very individual, but the tough economic climate and social factors such as insecurities around work and housing, social isolation and substance misuse are felt particularly strongly by young and middle-aged men. For many middle-aged men, financial problems or redundancy can cause feelings of shame and hopelessness, and can feel impossible to overcome.
Young men and women of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have not yet been mentioned in our debate. The Stonewall survey found that 50% of LGBT young men and women had attempted self-harm. We need to look at the particular needs of that group, both in relation to mental health and suicide and self-harm.
The Government have published a strategy called “Preventing suicide in England—a cross-government outcomes strategy to save lives”. It has two key aims: to reduce the suicide rate in England, and to support people better who have been bereaved or affected by suicide. However, the strategy does not make specific recommendations, so in the reorganised system it will be up to clinical commissioning groups and local directors of public health to take action in local areas. I hope this debate will serve to flag up the widespread concern that is felt about this. There is also an issue to do with spending.
Let me say a few words about Labour’s record on mental health. We made important progress on mental health, with the national service framework early on and then the improving access to psychological therapies programme towards the end of our time in office. Along with cancer and coronary heart disease, we made mental health one of our top three clinical priorities, and by 2007 we were spending more than £1 billion more on mental health services than in 2001, which is a real-terms increase of 25%. However, we believe there was more we could have done, which is why my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham has taken up this issue strongly. There is no question but that if we have an impact on mental health issues, we also have an impact on the problem of suicide.
Labour would like to see more work done on internet safety, to bear down both on internet bullying and on sites that, tragically, help young people to find out about suicide and may well encourage copycat suicides. We want to rewrite the NHS constitution to give patients the same legal rights to therapies for treating mental illnesses as they already have for drug treatment and treatments for physical illness. We want to ensure that training for all professional staff in the NHS includes dealing with mental health issues. If we are to meet the mental health challenge, and so meet the challenge of
dealing with increasing levels of suicide, we have to realise that it is not just an issue for the NHS; we have to bring together public services, such as education and the police, to work with business and employers. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has announced the formation of a taskforce to draw up a strategic plan for mental health, which will be chaired by Stephen O’Brien, a good friend of mine and the chairman of Barts and the London NHS Trust.
We have heard about the particular problem in Northern Ireland, and it is sad to think that a generation are living almost with a traumatic disorder in the aftermath of the troubles. Again, I congratulate my friends from the Democratic Unionist party on bringing this issue to the Floor of the House in the British Parliament so that we can put it in the wider context and understand the tragedy.
Every suicide is an individual tragedy. Every person who commits suicide is not amenable to anything that government might do; we will always find that two people—two men or two young women—may be almost exactly the same but when faced with precisely the same circumstances they will choose a different path. There is nothing government can do about that, but we can do something about the therapies and mental health services available. We can do something to support and sustain families. When I say “families”, I do not just mean a man and a woman with a certificate and 2.2 children; I mean the many varied patterns of family we find in our society. We can do more to support families and communities. In particular, we can do more to support grieving families, and we can do our best as a House to ensure that, day by day, year by year, fewer people in the British isles feel that they have nothing worth living for.
It is good to follow the excellent speech by the shadow Minister, Ms Abbott. A number of points have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members about the whole issue of suicide. The overall figures are a startling reminder of just how serious that subject is in society today. In the whole of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—6,045 people died from suicide in 2011. In Northern Ireland, the level of suicide has increased, with about 4,000 people having committed suicide between 2000 and the end of 2012. It is estimated that the final figure for 2012 will show that close to 300 people died last year in Northern Ireland through suicide. In the first nine months, the figure was 223 and it is estimated that it will reach 300 when the final analysis has been done. Those are startling figures.
The awful impact of suicide on families has been mentioned numerous times, and we cannot mention it enough. It is horrific when we, as elected Members, have to go to homes and give our sympathy to those who have lost loved ones—a child or an older person—through suicide. We mean well as we go to pay our respects, but we can walk out of the house again and go back to spend time with our families whereas those people must live with the impact day in, day out. People ask questions, as we heard earlier, such as, “Why did it happen? Why did we not see something that would have shown us that there were problems or that there was an
issue that we could have dealt with?” Those questions linger for years; they never leave those people, who think that there must surely have been something they could have done to prevent the suicide. Nothing in life is too serious for us not to sit down and talk about it and not to try to resolve it. The individual who died through suicide might have found that the issues were not as big as they originally thought if they had only sat down and talked to someone about them.
In my constituency of Upper Bann, we have had our share of deaths of younger and older people through suicide. From memory, I would say that the youngest person to die through suicide in my constituency was 12 years of age. That was a very difficult home to go to and we must ask what would make a 12-year-old do that. There must have been something traumatic in that child’s life to make them do what they did, and the mark left on the family has been horrific.
Many organisations across the United Kingdom deal with the issue and offer a lot of counselling. We have a number of them in my constituency. One that I deal with a lot is Yellow Ribbon, run by Dr Arthur Cassidy and a group of fantastic volunteers. I spoke to him earlier this week and over the past two years the organisation has counselled almost 400 people in my area. Its office is in the town of Portadown and many of those who have gone through its doors were referred by their GPs. The organisation has done a lot of work with young people and older people; it has a great passion for the people in the area and it has tried to help to the best of its ability.
As I said, Dr Cassidy is helped by a group of volunteers, and finance is very hard for them. The organisation is run mostly on donations from families, churches and other such organisations. My right hon. Friend Mr Dodds mentioned that some £30 million has been given to organisations that deal with the issues surrounding suicide, and although a large amount of money has been poured in, the situation is worsening in Northern Ireland. That is very, very worrying. Reference has been made to the legacy of the troubles and the difficulties in the Province. Another generation is emerging that is living with what has happened in the past. Perhaps their parents died in the same way, and it is a copycat: people are trying to copy what has happened. That is an awful blight on society.
Dr Cassidy’s organisation counsels many people, and he does not believe that counselling is working as it ought to work. Perhaps we have to think outside the box and come up with more innovative ways of trying to help people and identify the issues that they face. When he talks to those people, he finds that they have very low self-esteem. Men who have worked for 25 or 30 years in one job are paid off and feel that they are not worth anything. They feel that the family would be better off without them, then tragedy strikes. That is the way it happens. When it does, they believe that it will solve an issue for them, but unfortunately it leaves a major problem for the families who are left to pick up the pieces.
The economic crisis that we are going through is a difficult time. Only at the weekend, I spoke to families who are finding it so hard to make ends meet that in the week at the end of the month when they have to pay their mortgage—if they do not, they could go into
arrears and lose their home—they do not buy groceries or food to feed the family. In society as a whole, life has become more difficult. Those of us who are in jobs and enjoy the benefits of work may not see it as much, but people who are out of work and who have lost benefits and so on are going through a difficult time.
We need more innovative thinking, and we need to see whether we can help young people and get them into work projects and youth clubs, and help them to meet other young people. We have a lot of work ahead of us to do.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate Dr McCrea and his colleagues on giving the House the opportunity to discuss this very important issue, which, as we have heard, touches many people in many ways, and in ways that they find hard to express or represent. For all the reasons that we understand, it is important that we in the House—again, in our own inadequate and inarticulate way—not only try to express our feelings and represent the feelings of those who have lost people through suicide, but try to feel our way towards some sort of policy answer and structural response to a very serious problem that is growing in many ways.
It is not just because the statistics are better collated that we can say that the problem is growing. There are issues, and people can analyse and compare the different statistical bases over the years. It is a problem that has gradually been able to express itself a bit more. Reference has been made to the fact that it has been a taboo subject. The first time that I heard of suicide was when I was in primary school in the late 1960s, and a family friend committed suicide. She was a great friend of my mother—she was great to all my brothers and sisters whenever we were in her fruit and vegetable shop—and I remember that my mother’s distress as a friend was based not only on all the usual questions that arise from suicide and the loss of a lovely friend. It was also based on the fact that her friend was denied a Christian burial and denied the rites of her own Church. That is what taboo meant then. Luckily, Churches have become more enlightened and many people have helped them to become more enlightened. So we can celebrate the fact that spiritual enlightenment can inform Churches in different ways, and their response to something that they class as a sin can change and develop. That has been very positive and has helped all of us as a community in many ways.
I have found the debate hard. I agreed with many of the points, and I also felt many of the points. I have experienced suicide in my family more than once. I also have experience of suicide by people whom I regard as close—good friends, family friends and so on. All the things that all the right hon. and hon. Members have said are so, so true. We are stuck with that—the questions that will never leave, and the answers that will never come. There are people finding and developing answers, however. Maybe they are not answers to the particular suicide that has grieved me or grieves other members of my family and extended family, but answers as to how we may be able to get on top of the problem and as to how we can avert such tragedy and prevent it from afflicting other people as well.
In many cases some of those answers are being driven by the families and the very people who have experienced suicide, and by the professionals who have witnessed that, provided support and said, “There has to be a better way. There has to be more that we can do. There has to be more that we can do together.” Mrs Moon referred to the work of the all-party group and the report. I do not speak often at the all-party group, for reasons that people will understand; I find it hard to contain my emotions on these things. One thing struck me as I was listening to people give evidence to the group—people who did not know which area I represented. A few times when people from parts of England were giving evidence about their experience and the things that they were trying to do in their area with their trusts and well-being boards, they referred to what they called the Derry model, which they wanted to see in their area.
That is because in my constituency, in my city of Derry, as other hon. Members have said, we have grave levels of suicide, but there has been a strong community response and the local Western Health and Social Care Trust has tried to engage strongly on it. The trust has a suicide liaison officer, Barry McGail, who does not just work well locally, but is globally active and is part of progressive policy-pushing networks on the subject. When people spoke about the Derry model, part of what they meant was that suicide liaison service.
The service is notified of a suicide by the police within 24 hours and its staff make family contact. They are there at the wakes, able to talk to the family and friends. They are able to bring leaflets and draw attention to other services in a sensitive way, so the issues are immediately picked up and the people who might be most emotionally affected or vulnerable after the suicide—other family members, friends, classmates and so on—can be identified and supported. That has worked well and has helped families through and has helped them feel that they are helping others, which is so important.
More widely in Northern Ireland, we have a self-harm register, another positive development. It is run now by the Public Health Agency and is co-ordinated on a north-south basis. The register provides up-to-date information on people who may have attempted suicide or have self-harmed, so that the right services can be in touch with them or they can at least know that services such as counselling and other opportunities are available for them. Again, that is important in prevention. It is also important to learn the lessons of experiences and making sure that things that are known to one service are not lost to the knowledge and intelligence of another service that may be the right one to provide help.
Some hon. Members have referred to the media in this regard. Of course, the media have particular responsibilities. They need to be very careful and sensitive in how they present any film or TV storylines depicting suicide. If they make suicide simply the natural conclusion to a narrative, that is completely wrong. Unfortunately, too often in the media it seems as though the suicide itself makes the statement, and that is very dangerous. Equally, the media, whether the print media or any other kind, need to be very sensitive in how they cover deaths by suicide. If they treat speculation about clusters—the hon. Member for Bridgend, who is unfortunately no
longer here, has experienced this directly in her constituency—in an insensitive, invasive, exploitative and sensational way, that can add to the problems. It can not only add to the suffering and stress of families, but put more families at risk of loss and distress.
Over a dozen years ago—this is not a new problem in Northern Ireland—people like Barry McGail worked on developing guidelines for the local media to use. One of the guidelines in circumstances where a suicide took place was for the media not to treat it in a way that linked it to a single dramatic event. I found myself in a situation where there was a suicide in another family that followed a death in my own family. With the support of education professionals, people like Barry McGail, and other people in the Western health board, I tried to prevail on the media not to treat the young man’s suicide as a “Romeo and Juliet”-type story. It was a struggle to get the media to comply with guidelines that had been drawn up sensitively with their own co-operation, and unfortunately we did not succeed in all instances. The media do have responsibilities in this regard.
Then there is the new media, with the digital age and all the opportunities that are there. In relation to the sites that offer methods and techniques of suicide and appear to be encouraging it, Barry McGail says that although most young people will engage in social media, most of them will want to do so positively. As well as trying to police and shut down all the negative, dark sites, we need to think of more ways of making sure that there are far more positive connections and real pathways of assistance and communication. We need to develop new things such as apps that will be suitable for young people, in particular, who could be at risk.
That is not to say that only young people are at risk of suicide. In my constituency and elsewhere, it affects the old and the young—mothers, fathers, and children. However, one of the things that gives me heart is that people who have been through these dark difficulties, and who are still not out of all that darkness, are desperately trying to remedy the situation through different networks, charities and support groups. In my town, they are supported by people such as those at Foyle Search and Rescue, who do such a good job in helping families who suffer following suicide in the river. When we were building the new iconic peace bridge in Derry, they worked with us to prevail on the architects to understand that it needed to be designed in a particular way with rails shaped so as not to lend themselves readily to suicide attempts.
Foyle Search and Rescue houses and accommodates various groups of families who have come together. We also have groups such as Zest for Life, who work so well to counsel people who are suffering from problems, and HURT (Have Your Tomorrows), which particularly helps people who have been suffering from addiction or dependency and have specific vulnerabilities. These groups are succeeding in helping to reduce and to solve the problems, but they constantly come up against funding difficulties. There is also the issue of making sure that all the policies and services can mesh together.
Finally, another positive feature in Northern Ireland is the ASIST—applied suicide intervention skills training— model, which has been borrowed from Canada and is working well where people engage with it. The big problem, however, is getting GPs to engage with it—they
are not—because they are the vital cog and the key people. The issue has come up in the work of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. As the hon. Member for Bridgend will know, one of the questions that constantly comes up is: how do we get GPs involved in and engaged with this? Their input is vital and they are vital channels, but in their absence, people’s sense of purpose starts to wane and get weaker.
I am not blaming GPs. Obviously, there are a lot of pressures and demands on them, so they need time out of their practice to do this. We need to see what locum support and other things are available to allow them to play their part in the very good efforts that are being made and to make good the investment being provided by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Other Members have been right to acknowledge the work of that Department, including that of the current Minister, Edwin Poots, and his permanent secretary, Andrew McCormick. We should also acknowledge the work of the previous devolved Ministers. It is a pity that the ministerial group did not meet for about 18 months, but that does not mean that other good work was not going on. For that work to be done, it needs to be supported, and I hope that today’s debate will help to support and encourage those people who deserve it in their important work on such a huge issue.
To resume his seat no later than 5.35 pm, I call Kevan Jones.
Mr Dodds is right to say that the reasons for suicide are complex. The question that most families usually ask is: why? My constituency has a great organisation called If U Care Share, which was set up by Shirley Smith, whose 19-year-old son, Daniel, hanged himself a few years ago, having not showed any of the signs referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. He was, the family thought, a perfectly happy, contented teenager. The family then wondered what they could do. They set up If U Care Share, and Shirley, her husband, Dean, and their children, Ben and Matthew, go into schools to talk to young people about suicide and people’s feelings. People should not be ashamed to open up and talk about their feelings. They also work with youth clubs and the Football Association to get their message across.
Stuart Andrew noted how the highest number of suicides seem to be among men, and David Simpson mentioned the figure of 6,000. I have just looked up the figure and it is about 4,500 who are actually men. As the hon. Member for Pudsey has said, mental health is not an issue that we talk about. I might sound like a broken record, but we need to keep talking about mental health.
Today’s debate is good because, as the hon. Member for Foyle has said, we are talking about one of the great last taboos. The more we talk about mental health and the effect of suicide—not just on the individual and the lost opportunities for them and their family, but on society—the better we can draw up the systems to help.
There is nothing wrong about talking about mental health, or about people admitting that they need help. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North has said, that is the big step that needs to be taken in most cases. We need to get the message across, not only to young people, but to everyone, that if they are in distress they need to ask for help. In my area, the statistics show that an older generation of men in their 30s and 40s are committing suicide. A reason for that might be the issue of the economic role of men of society, which has been mentioned. Unless we talk about it and put it on the national agenda, we will continue to come up against these issues.
I have just one point to make. We need to join up the services, because the roles of the voluntary sector and the NHS are vital. GP commissioning could have great benefits, but it also brings great risks. I fear that when GPs commission services, mental health services might again be seen as the poor relation. We need a joined-up approach if we are to prevent the tragic losses that are now at a level which most people would say is unacceptable.
I will finish by saying—again, I will sound like a broken record—that the more we speak about these issues, the better it is, because it will help young people and others who are in distress to take the major step of getting the help that is there if they only ask for it.
To resume his seat no later than 5.45, I call Mr Jim Shannon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr McCrea on bringing this matter to the House. I also congratulate my hon. Friends and everyone else who has spoken. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to sum up.
Today is an example of this House working at its best. All Members and all parties have come together and issued a joint call from the Floor of the House for better services. The contributions that Members have made have shown that the House is an immense fount of knowledge. In the short time I have, I intend to highlight the main issues that have been raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim introduced the subject very well. He referred to the bereavement caused by suicide. That is an interesting point, because people have to come to terms with what has happened and how it affects them. I had not thought about that until my hon. Friend made the point and I realise that he was right. Other Members have talked about how suicide affects a person’s entire family and their friends. Mrs Moon spoke about anniversaries in particular. I will return to that point in a moment. Those issues have been raised over and over again.
My hon. Friend spoke about the vulnerability of people on coming out of prison. He spoke about the drug and alcohol culture among young men. That is not only an urban problem, but a rural problem. My hon. Friend’s constituency covers both types of area.
Members have said that this must not be a taboo subject and that it is time that we faced up to it. Hopefully we have faced up to it in this debate. The contributions have been immense. We have all met people who hide their depression and anxiety. Members
have raised the fact that the suicide rate is higher in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Prevention was a key theme in what my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim said. He referred to the impact that computers and websites can have on children. He challenged us to address these issues. That set the scene clearly for me.
The Minister referred to the steps that are being taken to reduce suicide in England. He referred to the figures for the past year. His commitment to working with regional Assemblies is good news because it means that all parts of the United Kingdom, which are represented here today, are working together.
Some 75% of those who take their lives are not known to Government agencies. I did not know that before this debate started. We can look for the signs in people, such as whether they have depression. Like all hon. Members, I have met people over the years who unfortunately fall into that category.
The hon. Member for Bridgend gave a detailed, decisive and, I would say, masterful contribution to the debate and I thank her for that. She displayed great knowledge about the rates of suicide among 30 to 40-year-olds and among females.
The question that everybody asks themselves—I have asked myself this question when friends of mine have died—is, “What could I have done to prevent it?” You search your heart, you search your soul and you almost put yourself into the grave worrying about what more you could have done. Every Member who has spoken has mentioned that. Behind that question there is perhaps a bit of guilt as well.
Simon Hughes spoke about the vital importance of support groups and Papyrus in particular. I am conscious that I am summing up and not making a contribution, but I just want to say that the LINK group in Newtownards does a magnificent job to help people who are considering suicide and those who have depression.
Lady Hermon spoke about suicide prevention and the moneys available in Northern Ireland, which gives that leadership, as well as the moneys that are set aside. Bob Stewart spoke on behalf of soldiers who leave the service and feel vulnerable, and as Members of Parliament we have all heard such cases.
In an intervention, Mark Durkan mentioned the sensitivity surrounding the coroner’s report, and there is a lesson there for other parts of the United Kingdom after what has happened in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Bridgend spoke about the use of sport for young people and the importance of correct wording in dramas and soaps, and that valid point was also made by the hon. Member for Foyle in a passionate and real way. A “suicide champion” was referred to, and the need to extend that across the United Kingdom, and the comments and points of view expressed contain lessons for all regions in the United Kingdom.
I am entirely comfortable with everything the hon. Gentleman is saying about how we need better to co-ordinate and mesh this work across the UK and
use all means to do that. Of course, the problem is wider in these islands. Recently, Shane McEntee, a Government Minister in the south of Ireland, took his own life, and there are serious problems that need to be addressed even at school level. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that this issue should perhaps be prioritised at the level of the British-Irish Council? Perhaps a debate such as this could take place at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly so that we gather all the experiences and good practice that has come out of the bad experiences in all parts of these islands?
I agree, and I think all Members of this House feel the same. I commend Stuart Andrew, who referred to bullying at school and the importance of family when he was working in a hospice. He mentioned the difference between death and death from suicide—both very tragic and real issues—and spoke about the red socialist and the blue Tory working together. That is good and the way it should be in this House, doing the best we can.
My right hon. Friend and colleague Mr Dodds gave a detailed account of what happens in north Belfast which, along with west Belfast, unfortunately has a reputation for the highest suicide rates in Northern Ireland. He referred to the hard work done by many people in the PIPS group—the Public Initiative for Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm—FASA, churches and many other groups that do tremendous work. Queen’s university has made a study of north Belfast, and if my right hon. Friend ever needs facts or evidence of what is wrong and how to address it, those are issues we must consider.
I have in my notes, “Coping with peace after years of violence”, and unfortunately in north Belfast, and perhaps west Belfast, that is one of the issues, and my right hon. Friend clearly addressed that point. He and other Members referred to copycat suicides, and the hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned anniversaries. The work done by the Samaritans in A and E was mentioned, and, as my right hon. Friend said, there are lessons to be learned for us all.
The shadow Minister, Ms Abbott, said that although any death is tragic, suicide is the worst as it poses many questions for the family left behind, and she spoke about the issue very clearly and honestly. She referred to the good work done by Labour when it was in power. I know that to be the case and I look forward to more such work.
My hon. Friend David Simpson referred to the increased number of suicides in Northern Ireland—300—and mentioned Yellow Ribbon and the 400 people helped by that organisation in one year. Four hundred people sought help, and volunteers and groups were there to help.
I thank the hon. Member for Foyle for his passionate, powerful and revealing speech that moved us all, and he put forward a number of ideas. The Maiden City has a suicide awareness day; perhaps it could be a model for the rest of the United Kingdom. He also referred to a self-harm register. Although not many people mentioned that issue in Northern Ireland, the British Medical Association referred to the fact that a third of those who self harm, commit suicide, so that issue is important. He mentioned the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Last but not least, I remember when Mr Jones spoke about mental health in the Chamber some time ago—I have never forgotten that speech. He spoke again today with passion and belief, and with the inner knowledge that comes from his experience. He has been able to describe that for all hon. Members in the Chamber.
We should be clear that we need the voluntary services and the Government to work together. I thank everyone for their valuable and sensitive contributions in the Chamber today. The debate has been excellent.
I have a short 10 minutes to close the debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken—they have made well informed, serious contributions to this excellent and deeply insightful debate on this hugely important subject. As the Prime Minister said today at Prime Minister’s questions in commending DUP Members for tabling the motion, we, as a society, do not talk enough about suicide and the impact it has on families. By being up-front about its often complex causes, we can be better at recognising the signs that lead to suicide and at preventing more lives from being taken in future.
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Health, said on behalf of the Government, every life taken by suicide is one too many. When that person is a child, the tragedy is merely multiplied. I am speaking as the Minister with responsibility for children and families as well as a co-chair of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. I shall briefly explain what the Department for Education is doing to help children as part of a cross-government outcomes strategy to prevent suicide, but before I do so I wanted to mention one or two of the contributions to the debate that have been though-provoking not just for me, but I am sure for many of the people watching and listening.
I acknowledge the brave and touching speech made by Mark Durkan, who said that suicide has deeply affected not only his community, but his family. I know it was a difficult speech for him to make, but those suicides have left a lot of unanswered questions for him and many others. It leads to the conclusion that we must do more. We must acknowledge that we need to place huge importance on ensuring that the support made available to families who are grieving the loss of someone in such circumstances is at the heart of the services and support we offer in our communities.
Dr McCrea made a powerful and compassionate speech to open the debate. He said we should not sweep suicide under the carpet—that we cannot run away from it and must face up to it. The situation in Northern Ireland is particularly concerning. He highlighted the fact that 289 people took their own lives in 2011. As he said, it is a personal tragedy for anyone who comes to that decision. We must bear in mind that it can often be triggered by what can seem like a minor or innocuous event. This is a complex issue, and there is very rarely a single factor, although mental health is often a central feature of suicide cases. We need to understand and be better aware of all the different events and pressures on people’s lives that can contribute to them coming to that state of mind.
Mrs Moon, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, made, as usual, a highly knowledgeable speech and asked the question we should all ask ourselves: what causes suicide and self-harm to feature in people’s lives in the first place? Her point about raising awareness across agencies—she mentioned the Department for Work and Pensions as one such agency—was absolutely right. I will take it away and ensure that other Departments think carefully about how they train their staff so they understand the signs they need to look for and can point people in the direction of the support that we know is out there.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the coroner’s narrative verdicts, the Ministry of Justice is, as she said, looking into the matter. I understand that the Office for National Statistics and the chief coroner will attend the next meeting of the Government’s national suicide prevention strategy advisory group—narrative verdicts are on the agenda—which is coming up next month. Hopefully, therefore, progress can be made.
She also mentioned the “Help is at Hand” resource for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden traumatic deaths. It is an excellent piece of work that is clear and accessible for those who want support. We are distributing it, and it is on the Department of Health website. I think that approximately 1,000 copies are going out each month, but we need to do better and improve distribution. We are working with coroners’ offices to make sure we achieve that.
My hon. Friend Stuart Andrew talked about the moving memory he has of someone he lost at school through suicide. He also talked about his work with the hospice movement. We need to ensure we understand that attitudes to suicide sometimes impact more deeply than we realise. Cyber-bullying is a particularly new phenomenon and it is more and more difficult for young people to escape its awful bearing on their own lives. To understand it better, we need to work closely with young people, and to listen to them and their experiences, rather than assuming that we know the answers ourselves.
In the five minutes I have left, I want to touch on what the Department for Education is doing to try to raise awareness and improve our response, particularly with regard to child internet safety. The new suicide prevention strategy for England, which was published last September, has already been referred to. It is right that children and young people have an important place in that strategy. We should all be extremely concerned about the suicide rate among teenagers, even though it is below that of the general population.
To help young people get the support they need and to be able to talk through their problems, we continue to support, to the tune of £11.2 million between 2011 and 2015, the valuable work done by ChildLine in providing children with free and confidential support in conjunction with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children helpline.
The strategy recognises—a point raised by a number of hon. Members—that the media have a significant influence on behaviour and attitudes, particularly for teenagers. In 2009—the hon. Member for Bridgend will be acutely aware of this—the Press Complaints Commission highlighted the impact of insensitive and inappropriate reporting of suicides. We all have to take children’s
safety extremely seriously, particularly to protect them from any harmful or inappropriate online content. We are clear that we favour a self-regulatory model for the internet industry, but that is as much a pragmatic response as a philosophical response. We have heard today that the law makes it clear that people who intentionally encourage suicide via websites hosted in the UK are at risk of prosecution, and, to be absolutely clear, what is illegal offline is illegal online.
We need to do more, and through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety board we are trying to make sure that all internet service providers step up to the plate and realise their responsibility. They need to ensure that these types of sites are kept away from young people, and that young people’s ability to have direct contact with them is removed altogether—they are truly horrible sites to have anywhere near one’s home.
As the Minister with responsibility for UKCCIS, I am leading the work looking at how ISPs, filtering companies, device manufacturers and public wi-fi, which we find in our local coffee shops and retailers—all the information and communications technology industries—can work together to make sure harmful content is filtered out wherever our children are. With nine out of 10 children having access to the internet in their own home and with children aged between 12 and 15 proportionately more likely to own a smartphone than their parents, this issue is only going to get bigger rather than smaller.
There are good examples of the internet industry working with the charitable sector, and that will be a key element as we go forward. As the hon. Member for South Antrim said, Google searches on the word “suicide” will return details of the Samaritans at the top of the results—a real step forward—and Facebook has teamed up with the Samaritans to make it easier to report concerns about a friend who might be considering self-harm or suicide. We must do more, however. As Ms Abbott mentioned, yesterday was the 10th safer internet day. I met a group of young people who were discussing the excellent “Have Your Say” survey. Some 24,000 school-aged children contributed to the largest ever survey about what they expect online. The thing they wanted most was to be safe. That is something we need to deliver for young people, because they are the ones exposed to what adults provide for them.
In conclusion, this has been an excellent debate. I am sure that many people will be encouraged that the House takes the issue extremely seriously and can work together to keep people as safe as possible from the ravages that suicide can bring to families.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises that the number of suicides in the UK, particularly amongst young people, represents a major challenge for government and society; acknowledges the work that is taking place to address the issue; calls for even more urgency to be shown in seeking to reduce the rate of suicides; notes the danger posed in particular by websites which promote or give information about harmful behaviours such as suicide; and calls upon the Government to adequately resource and promote child and adolescent digital safety.