As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self-Harm prevention, and a long standing volunteer at Samaritans, I know the real issues in mental health support in our communities.
Below is the text of my speech and you can also watch my contribution in the House of Commons online here.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) on an accomplished and thought-provoking speech? I am sure that she will represent her constituents well.
I am very pleased to be able to take part in this important debate on health and social care. Earlier this week, I chaired a breakfast roundtable organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust, bringing together industry representatives, third-sector organisations and parliamentarians to discuss the issue of suicide in the construction industry. As chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention in the last Parliament, I am familiar with the statistics on the number of lives lost to suicide and the statistics that show that middle-aged men are particularly at risk. However, even I was shocked to hear that two construction workers each day die by suicide and that twice as many die by suicide as those who die falling from heights.
A huge amount of work has rightly been done on reducing the physical risks in the construction industry. I am glad that there are now moves by some employers and charities such as Mates in Mind to put the same focus on tackling mental health issues and preventing suicide in the construction workforce. There are issues and problems caused by job and financial insecurity, physical stress, working away from home and loneliness.
I want to speak about the wider issue of suicide prevention. I am glad that the Minister is in her place to hear this. Last year, the number of deaths by suicide in the UK rose significantly—an increase of more than 600 on the previous year. There were 6,507 deaths by suicide in 2018. The statistics show that middle-aged men remain the highest risk group, though rates among young people, too, are rising. This is at a time when there is increased talk of improving mental health services in the NHS plan and a focus on suicide prevention. Clearly, the Government need to be doing more for individual people and at policy and practice level to reduce those figures.
Suicide is a public health issue. It is startling to know, from work done by the University of Manchester in 2018, that two thirds of people who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services in the year before they die. A way needs to be found of reaching out to these people. We know from work by the Samaritans and others that socioeconomic factors are often at the root of the desperation which many people feel. Low incomes, job insecurity, unemployment, housing problems and benefits issues all play their part. Although there is a cross-Government suicide prevention work plan, what needs to happen is for each Department to take clear actions to make a real difference. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, has no concrete actions from the plan, but those of us dealing with constituents on a day-to-day basis will know that that Department has a real impact on people, especially when they are struggling.
Most local authorities do now have suicide prevention plans, but the Government must do more to make sure that those that do not, develop them as a matter of urgency, and that those that do, follow up the written plans with action and share experience and best practice. I have to say that reducing public health funding is tying the hands of those local authorities that are translating those plans into actions and real interventions.
Some £57 million has been made available for suicide prevention, but those of us who have tried to track it with our local health services have found it difficult to identify what specific actions that translates into when it is spread so thinly that it is almost invisible to see in the budget. Local NHS services need to make sure that the gaps in services, which too many people can fall through, are filled in. For example, there must be a way for people who are considered “too suicidal” for talking therapies to be able to access secondary mental healthcare more quickly, and non-clinical services need to be available, too.
I have already mentioned the fact that middle-aged men on low incomes have been the highest risk group for many years. Much more needs to be done to understand what really works to support this group when they are struggling. Research, again by the Samaritans, shows that the poorest men living in the most deprived areas are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than the wealthiest living in more affluent areas. We really need some concrete action to address that.
I wish to speak briefly about self-harm. Levels of self-harm among young people are rising. There is a real stigma around self-harm that stops people seeking help. Most people who self-harm do not go on to take their own life, but there is evidence that many people who do have self-harmed in the past. It is a sign of deep emotional distress and people who self-harm must have access to support to identify why they are feeling that distressed. Plans are needed in that area, too.
In summary, suicide prevention is a public health issue and should be tackled as such. Low-income middle-aged men are at the highest risk of suicide and we need to tackle and identify the causes of that and develop accessible services. Levels of self-harm are increasing and need to be tackled now. The Government need to do much more to address this issue and they need to put more resources into both the NHS and the local authorities to reduce the number of people dying by suicide.