The new Government will set aside €35 million from the health budget each year to implement the National Suicide Prevention Strategy and to develop community and mental health teams.
A Dáil debate followed the publication of CSO statistics showing that there had been 506 deaths by suicide in 2008 (an increase of 10.5 per cent from 2007). Provisional figures for 2009 indicated a further increase of 4 per cent to 527 (422 male and 105 female), the highest level of suicide deaths ever recorded in Ireland.
The discussion into the “sensitive and disturbing issue” was welcomed by TDs, who noted that it was a step towards removing the stigma attached to suicide.
The current number for emotional support helplines across Europe is 116 123. However, Kathleen Lynch, the new Minister of State for mental health, is working with the Minister for Communications on the provision of a national freephone telephone helpline that would “offer emotional support to callers who suffer from loneliness, are in a state of psychological crisis or are contemplating suicide.”
She will meet relevant telecommunications providers “in the near future” to discuss this proposal.
Suicide awareness campaigner Dan Neville of Fine Gael – who was one of the founding members of the Irish Association of Suicidology – pointed out that “it is accepted that the level of suicide remains under-reported.”
He said that experts put the actual figure for 2009 at 600 and added that in other countries, a death is registered as suicide if the coroner has been unable to determine the cause of death.
“Experts in this country believe that at least 40 per cent of deaths which remain undetermined are suicides,” Neville told the Dáil.
He added that “suicide is now the most common cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds in Ireland.”
The general consensus was that the rate of suicide increases at times of recession and that suicide is linked with financial difficulties.
Former chairman of the Oireachtas Health Committee Seán Ó Fearghail said that while the House has spent hours discussing the banks and the financial crisis, “there is a human side to the recession which is entirely tangible.” He added that the effects of suicide will stay with families “for much longer than will those of the financial crisis [and] that is why it is imperative that suicide prevention remains a key pillar of public health policy.”
Kathleen Lynch explained that the total annual funding available to support suicide prevention initiatives is “in the region of €8.7 million.” This includes the annual budget of €4.2 million for the National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) and an extra €1 million in 2011 to cope with the increasing rate of suicide. The rest – €4.5 million – is used to fund resource officers for suicide prevention, self-harm nurses in hospital emergency departments and the development of local suicide prevention initiatives.
Dan Neville reminded his party that Fine Gael policy had been to increase resources for the NOSP from €4.2 million to €10 million during the lifetime of the Government.
Implementing the ‘Reach Out’ suicide strategy and the ‘Vision for Change’ model for mental health services are two priorities for the new Minister of State. She welcomed the ‘Tough economic times’ leaflet produced by the NOSP. Aimed at people who have lost their jobs, it outlines practical ways to protect mental health and advises how to prepare staff to recognise and respond to suicidal behaviours.
Lynch praised ‘See Change’, the national stigma reduction campaign which “tries to change attitudes to mental health in towns all over Ireland through public events.”
The Minister also outlined her commitment to the Assist programme (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), which trains anyone in a position of trust to become able to recognise and intervene if a person seems at risk of suicide. “Training young people in this area will probably save more lives than all the other steps put together … that is why we are so committed to it,” she said.