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New strategy to cut suicides 'achievable', says Clegg

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News


The government is calling for a fundamental overhaul of how the NHS tackles suicides.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg says many suicides are preventable and wants hospitals to aim to end all such deaths.

The approach is based on a successful scheme in the US city of Detroit, where the suicide rate among patients in the scheme fell by 75% within four years.

More than 4,700 people killed themselves in England in 2013, a rise of more than 6% on 2012.

"Suicide is preventable, it is not inevitable", said Mr Clegg.

media captionDeputy PM Nick Clegg: "Suicide is and always has been a massive taboo in our society"

"We have to break this hidden assumption that nothing can be done to stop people killing themselves.

"Suicide is one of the biggest killers of men under the age of 50 and if this was a physical health problem, there would be a national outcry."

The deputy prime minister wants hospitals to adopt an approach pioneered by the Henry Ford Medical Group in Detroit.

'Suicides deserve respect'

In 2001, it embarked on a wide-ranging programme that included improved staff training, increased contact with patients and better education for the families of people who were deemed to be at risk.

Within four years, the suicide rate among Henry Ford's patient population had fallen by 75%; by 2008, they had stopped all suicides among patients of the medical group.

Inspired by what happened in Detroit, Merseycare NHS Trust in Liverpool is now embarking on a similar strategy.

It is going to:

  • create a Safe from Suicide Team, a 24/7 group of experts which rapidly and thoroughly assesses patients who are having suicidal thoughts
  • improve the care of people who present with self-harm injuries at accident and emergency units, offering them therapies on the spot and following up with them when they go home
  • improve data collection on patients to get a better understanding of how and where patients are most at risk of suicide and then targeting resources at them

Dr David Fearnley, medical director at the trust, believes that within 18 months there will be a noticeable decrease in the number of patients who kill themselves.

"When people have a very serious physical injury, like chest pains or strokes, hospitals put all that they can around them to make them better.

"We think suicides deserve the same respect, the same intensity, the same innovative level of care. That's our ambition and we think we can deliver that."

And Joe Rafferty, chief executive of the trust, said one idea it was taking from the Detroit system was the development of a safety plan for each individual.

"Everything about that individual, their risk, their tendencies, everything we know should be incorporated into that safety plan, so that any professional that comes into contact with them can understand better what to do next."

Case study: 'I now know where to go'

Iris (who asked us not to use her surname) has tried to kill herself on several occasions.

She has complex mental health problems as a result of severe childhood trauma.

"I really wanted to take my own life (so as) not to hurt anyone anymore," says the 57 year old.

She's now glad she didn't, after being helped to survive by her mental health team and her family.

"They never gave up on me even when I'd given up on myself. They've supported me when I've been unwell. I still have those thoughts but I now know where to go."

media captionIris explains what led her to try and take her own life

What Mr Clegg calls a "new ambition" for the NHS comes as mental health services are under increasing pressure, with demand soaring, budgets falling and patients regularly complaining about poor care.

While not denying the stresses on the system, the deputy prime minister insists that his goal of drastically reducing suicides is achievable.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said there was plenty to consider first.

"Any reduction in suicides pledged by the government will never be achieved until it is accepted that psychiatric beds and units must be restored or replaced, and that we do not rely on overstretched crisis teams.

"As we have been told, you can't keep someone on suicide watch in the community."

Related Topics

  • Sir Nick Clegg
  • Mental health

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