Striving towards zero suicide | Paula Lavis

woman sitting at a table

NHS Clinical Commissioners (NHSCC) runs five specialist networks, which help commissioners to support each other and share best practice. Here, NHSCC’s Paula Lavis, who runs the Mental Health Commissioners’ Network, considers one of the network’s most poignant issues – suicide prevention.

Anyone who has experienced bereavement by suicide will know of the enormous impact on family and friends. I have spoken to parents whose children have taken their own lives, and you can physically feel their pain. We have some idea about why people do this, such as having mental health problems, social isolation, relationship problems and financial worries. But when it is your loved one, it can be totally inexplicable. Every suicide is a tragedy, but it isn’t inevitable. We all need to strive for zero suicides. 

Unfortunately, suicide rates in the UK have risen over the last few years, particularly among certain groups. Men are known to be a high-risk cohort and this is particularly the case for middle-aged men. Sadly, there has also been an increase in the number of young people under 25, especially young women, taking their own lives.   

To address the increasing number of people dying by suicide, we need to keep suicide prevention firmly on the agenda. Thankfully, there is a lot of work currently taking place in England at local and national level, such as the national suicide strategy and local zero suicide plans. While this is important, we need to ensure we involve people with lived experience of suicide attempts or thoughts and their families in service development, as they provide insight that can truly transform services.

Support in the community

There is still a lot of stigma around mental health and unfortunately some people often do not want to access statutory mental health services. It is probably no surprise that voluntary sector services are being commissioned to engage with so called ‘hard-to-reach groups’. Men’s Sheds, for example, provides a supportive community-based space, mainly for men, to come together and chat while working on group activities. The aim is to help reduce isolation and loneliness, a known risk factor for suicide. 

While not set up as a suicide prevention programme, these sheds have been highly successful in attracting the target group, especially older men, and have some impressive outcome data. The charity saw a 75 per cent reduction in anxiety among participants and an 89 per cent reduction in depression (although it isn’t clear how the reduction was measured) following regular attendance. Participants were also 96 per cent less likely to say that they were lonely. 

The sheds are not the same across the country. In west London for instance, clinical commissioning groups have commissioned suicide prevention champions through the voluntary sector organisation Mind. They train lay people to identify men using the sheds, who may be at risk of suicide. 

Support for families bereaved by suicide

People who have experienced bereavement by suicide are at a much higher risk of taking their own lives, but are unfortunately often left unsupported. A former colleague whose son took his own life said that he had more support when his lawnmower was stolen than when his son took his own life. This can’t be right. There needs to be better support for family and friends too. The Mental Health Commissioners’ Network that I manage on behalf of NHSCC successfully encouraged NHS England and NHS Improvement to include deliverables for post-crisis support for families bereaved by suicide in the NHS Long Term Plan. This is important as it is estimated that 135 people are affected by each suicide and many will be at increased risk of suicide themselves.  

While suicide prevention is part of some people’s role, there are things we can all do to make a difference. NHSCC is proud to be a member of the Zero Suicide Alliance – the alliance’s online training can give everyone a basic understanding of suicide and expel myths about what you should and shouldn’t do if you think someone is feeling suicidal. This training is free, quick and could help you save a life. 

Paula Lavis is a member network and policy manager at NHS Clinical Commissioners. Follow Paula and NHSCC on Twitter @plavis @NHSCCPress.

Find out more about NHSCC’s specialist networks

NHS Clinical Commissioners has five member-requested and led networks:

We also have informal networks for members in areas including medicines. 

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