Nick Clegg is calling on the NHS to commit to a "zero suicide" goal among patients by adopting a range of new mental health policies which he argues could save thousands of lives.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who is today hosting a conference to discuss the future of mental health in England, is calling on the NHS to create a culture where patients with suicidal thoughts can seek help without fear, embarrassment or judgement.
"Suicide is preventable, it is not inevitable", said Clegg. Nearly 4,700 people took their own lives in 2013, the vast majority of them men, a six per cent rise from the previous year.
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"[It] is, and always has been, a massive taboo in our society," he said. "People are genuinely scared to talk about it, never mind intervene when they believe a loved one is at risk."
Clegg's proposal includes measures that were pioneered by the Henry Ford Medical Group in Detroit a decade ago. By improving staff training and increasing contact between doctors and patients, the hospital's suicide rate fell by 75 per cent in just four years and by 2008 all suicides had stopped.
Based on the US approach, a similar programme is being piloted at the Merseycare NHS Trust in Liverpool. The strategy involves:
- The creation of a 24/7 Safe from Suicide Team, comprised of doctors and other mental health experts who would rapidly assess and respond to a suicidal patient.
- Improving the response to patients admitted for self-harm by offering immediate therapies and a thorough follow up.
- Further research on how and where patients are most at risk of suicide and the allocation of more resources.
"We all have a role to play," said care and support minister Norman Lamb. "By talking openly about suicide we can remove the fear that stops people asking for help. We may feel uncomfortable, or frightened of saying the wrong thing, but if we tackle this stigma then we will save lives."
However critics argue that such measures will add further pressure to an already overstrained and understaffed mental health sector.
"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," said Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane.
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