Jen Gracie: Learning the lessons of suicide can help us stop more lives being shattered

A few months ago, the ­Scottish Government published its proposals for a new Suicide Prevention Action Plan. This draft plan contained four actions, none of which were overwhelmingly welcomed.
Jen Gracie, Policy and Communications Officer for Samaritans in ScotlandJen Gracie, Policy and Communications Officer for Samaritans in Scotland
Jen Gracie, Policy and Communications Officer for Samaritans in Scotland

We were loud and clear about our disappointment since, for us, this was an alarming signal that suicide prevention was not a priority. That’s despite losing 680 people to suicide last year alone.

Since that publication, my time has largely been taken up with ensuring that the importance of suicide ­prevention is recognised. Fast ­forward through six months of FMQs, press work and a parliamentary inquiry and we are pleased to have a newly published Suicide Prevention Action Plan that shows real ambition.

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Published just last month, it aims to reduce Scotland’s suicide rate by 20 per cent over the next five years and ensure no one affected by ­suicide in Scotland is alone.

Of course, the real work to ensure these aims happen is yet to come, but we’ve got to this because the Scottish Government and the new Minister for Mental Health listened. They ­listened to concerns, evidence and recommendations and they learned what we could all do to reduce deaths by suicide in Scotland.

One of the commitments that we most welcome is to review all deaths by suicide. Throughout the process of developing this plan, we’ve been clear that this can offer learning and an opportunity to shape future ­support based on the lives and experiences of those we’ve lost.

I’ve since discovered that this action shocked many people. There was an assumption this was something we did already. Maybe it was assumed that we had a system as in England and Wales, where if a suicide is ­suspected there is always an inquest.

Of course, while we can learn ­valuable lessons from these inquests, it be such a lengthy process to establish whether a suicide took place that it can actually prove difficult turning any lessons into useful action. And what we need is real action.

It’s not that we don’t make similar efforts here at all; in fact suicide reviews are taken forward under some circumstances. When an individual had contact with a mental health services, reviews are taken forward by NHS boards and their services.

When it is deemed to be in the public interest, for example a prisoner dying of a possible suicide, this is reviewed in a fatal accident inquiry – unfortunately often months and years after the death has occurred. However, those aren’t the only times we could be learning valuable lessons.

According to the Scottish Suicide Information Database, only around a quarter of people who had taken their own lives in Scotland had a psychiatric appointment in the year before their death. We need to be learning important lessons from the three-quarters who didn’t.

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Importantly, those lessons are being learned in NHS Tayside and Shetland, where there are review processes in place to learn from the lives of people who have taken their own.

Particular issues can be quickly identified and actions suggested, for example from how better to ­support those with gambling issues to addressing communication problems between particular support services.

As the report of the first year of ­Tayside reviews concluded, “the ­level of detail obtained has been critical both to inform, and to gain the necessary multiagency support required for action.” This is action that could reduce suicide risk and help save lives.

Suicide is complex and there will be no one reason why any one person takes their own life. However, suicide is also preventable and we know that there are key risk factors and ­sometimes failings in the ­systems that are meant to be there to support all of us.

Undoubtedly, these types of reviews, as well as the authority and ability to implement changes, takes time and resources. We need to see how and where that will be made available.

Yet, Scotland has the opportunity here to learn incredibly valuable ­lessons. It’s through learning that we now have an ambitious Suicide ­Prevention Action Plan – and it will be through learning that we can ensure the aims of that plan are realised.

Through understanding more about the lives of those we’ve lost – tragic though they may be – we can ensure that changes are made and fewer of us experience the shattering loss of a loved one to suicide in Scotland.

Jen Gracie, policy and communications officer for Samaritans in Scotland.