I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set up a body to establish a public initiative for the prevention of suicide and self harm, to work with internet providers and others to reduce access to information on the internet and through other sources on methods of suicide and to develop a system of alerts and blocks for internet searches relating to suicide;
and for connected purposes.
Such is the importance of this Bill in protecting the young and the vulnerable from the risks posed by websites that actively promote suicide and self-harm that I felt it necessary to present it to the House today. Every year almost 1 million people across the world die as a result of suicide, which equates to one suicide death every 40 seconds, and there is an attempt at suicide every three seconds. Each year, more lives are lost through suicide than are accounted for by all the deaths in armed conflicts across the globe. That is particularly true of Northern Ireland, where, in the 30 years of our troubles, more people died by suicide than as a result of the IRA conflict.
In Northern Ireland suicide rates remain stubbornly high, at around 15 to 16 deaths per 100,000 of our population. That has been the case since 2006, when recorded suicide rates were almost twice as high as those in the earlier part of the decade. In 2010, 313 suicides were recorded in Northern Ireland. That was the highest ever figure for the Province, and was almost six times the number of deaths due to road traffic accidents. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of young people taking their own lives, and Northern Ireland now has the highest suicide rate among young people in any UK jurisdiction.
Yet, despite suicide prevention efforts throughout the statutory, community, voluntary and church sectors, the number and rate of suicides in the general population continue to rise. Statistics show that the suicide rate is twice as high in economically deprived areas with high levels of unemployment, and that young males are three times more likely than females to die by suicide. In the past 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide, making suicide among the top 10 causes of death in every country and one of the three leading causes of death in the 15-to-35 year age group. In England, one person dies every two hours as a result of suicide. In 2010, 4,200 people in England, 288 in Wales and 781 in Scotland took their own lives.
Those are shocking statistics, but in spite of their startling nature, there remains a lack of public awareness of suicide as a major health problem. Most people never give suicide a second thought until it touches them personally, yet its psychological and social impact on the family and society is immeasurable. Family members, friends, colleagues and sometimes whole communities are left to deal with an utter sense of loss, confusion and overwhelming devastation.
In this age of fast moving technology, however, concerns have been expressed to me by organisations such as the Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm in Belfast, PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide in England, ChildLine and the Samaritans about the considerable risks posed to children, adolescents and vulnerable adults by suicide-related material which is easily accessible on the internet. While it must be acknowledged that the online environment and associated technologies have provided unique opportunities for learning, connection and communication, there is genuine concern about its potential for harm, especially in relation to children and young people. A recent medical journal focusing on suicide and the internet describes it as “extremely easy” to access information about suicide on the internet, and refers to several sites which describe the use of guns, overdosing, slashing one’s wrists and hanging as the best methods to end one’s life.
The internet and new media are undeniably prominent features of youth culture, but there are mounting concerns about the difficulty of ensuring safe access for children and developing appropriate limits and supports in respect of that access. Online technologies are growing and expanding rapidly, and each form poses both potential and real risk to children, young people and the most vulnerable. Knowing how to use the internet safely is the key to a positive online experience, and to ensuring that the benefits of the internet are realised and children are protected from harm. In writing to me earlier this year, the executive director of Samaritans Ireland noted:
“There are some aspects of the ways that individuals interact with one another online for example through social networking sites and online chat rooms that can place vulnerable people at risk by exposing them to detail about suicide methods or conversations that encourage suicide. 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.”
While the risks created by the internet are yet to be properly researched and assessed, the Samaritans is to be commended on the leadership and innovation it has shown in working with major companies to develop practical initiatives to support people at risk of suicide from such online sources.
Members may be familiar with the initiative that was launched in November 2010 in partnership with Google that adds the Samaritans helpline number above normal Google search results when people use certain search terms related to suicide. The charity also operates in partnership with Facebook, allowing UK users to get help for a friend whom they believe is struggling to cope or feeling suicidal. Such innovation shows how the online environment can deliver help and assistance to those in distress. I believe that for the first time real thought is being given to how the internet can be used to deliver help where it is most needed, and also to how sites that actively promote suicide can be restricted.
I welcome the commitment given by the Department of Health in its publication “Preventing Suicide in England” that it will
“continue to work with the internet industry through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to create a safer online environment for children and young people.”
I still believe that not enough is being done, however. That publication also recognises the growing concern about misuse of the internet to promote suicide and suicide methods, which may have contributed to as much as 2% of suicides in 2005-07, and calls on major organisations that provide content on the most popular parts of the internet to develop responsible practices that reduce the availability of harmful content and promote sources of support.
In Northern Ireland, the refreshed Protect Life strategy for 2012-14 published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety includes a new objective to develop
“internet guidelines to restrict the promotion of suicide and self-harm, and to encourage the circulation of positive mental health messages” by working with service providers to agree how best to maximise protection offered to internet users. Yesterday’s publication of the “Still Vulnerable” report by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People again underlined the concern about suicide among adolescents.
While I am encouraged by these advances and continually impressed and inspired by the work of charities and the voluntary and community sector, especially churches, that are committed to preventing suicide and self-harm, there is more work still to be done. Suicide remains a major issue for society. It demands our attention, but its prevention and control is, unfortunately, no easy task. Many people say there is nothing we can do, but we should not just wring our hands. Instead, we should do everything in our power to save the lives of young people who are confronted with the temptation of suicide.
I believe that this Bill presents a new and vital opportunity to confront this serious issue and help curtail the tragedy of suicide and suicidal behaviour. Only by working together can we hope to address that shared concern and achieve our common goal of saving lives and protecting our young people, the innocent and the most vulnerable. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Dr William McCrea, Mr Nigel Dodds, Ian Paisley, David Simpson, Lady Hermon, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Naomi Long, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Paul Goggins, Kate Hoey and Andrew Percy present the Bill.
Dr William McCrea accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday