At a recent event I attended, a Scottish GP stated that “the point of being alive is human interaction”. It gave me food for thought about how and why we stay alive, well and with each of us thriving in our communities. Scotland has recently experienced a sustained and much welcomed fall in the numbers of deaths by suicide. We can’t know all the reasons for that fall, but underpinning that decline is the importance of connections we all have to our friends, family and local communities. It is here where the building blocks of how we can prevent more suicides should start.
For us, this progress is partly explained by the unique work that has quietly been going on in every community across Scotland for the past decade. Most might not be aware of it, but each local authority in Scotland has a group which organises and manages activities with the aim of preventing and reducing suicide in their region. This programme has been held to have contributed to the continuing decline in Scotland’s suicide rate. So much so that other UK nations are now seeking to emulate it, with Public Health England recently committing to an additional spend of £25 million specifically on local suicide prevention work as part of their Five Year Forward View for Mental Health.
Aimed at tackling local issues with local knowledge, the activities these groups undertake are diverse. From working with football teams to tackle the stigma of men’s mental health, to providing backing to crucial self-harm support projects, their aim is to see fewer lives lost in their community. The groups consist of local people with specific expertise in helping those in crisis, from firefighters and police officers to bereavement councillors, all led by a “Choose Life” Coordinator.
In Fife, this network recently facilitated the two local Samaritans branches in setting up a critical partnership with NHS Fife’s unscheduled care assessment team (UCAT) to offer support to those who might otherwise be vulnerable. UCAT offer 24-hour urgent mental health assessments, however, occasionally those discharged from UCAT have no planned follow-up. It was arranged that going forward those individuals would be given the option of a Samaritan calling them in the days after discharge.
These are people in the community that who may be at high risk of harming themselves, yet may never have thought to contact Samaritans. They may simply not have felt able to make the call. Many of these people undoubtedly felt anxious and alone, perhaps still struggling with their mental health. They needed a little support and Samaritans was able to provide that. Without the network, the UCAT team would likely never have known this service was available. Examples like this are happening around the country, supported by local suicide prevention groups.
However, while England and Wales look to replicating this work, we feel the focus on it has been lost in Scotland over the years. Where there had once been a strong national framework supporting these activities, with a clear lead from Scottish Government and dedicated funding and guidance, there are now groups in local authorities with no funding and little support.
In 2010, there were four suicide prevention coordinators’ in local authorities working fewer than four hours a week. From our experience, there are now undoubtedly areas with far less time to dedicate to this work and a lack of funding to carry out activities that would save lives.
With the Scottish Government producing a new Suicide Prevention Strategy early next year, we are pleased to see that the minister for mental health, Maureen Watt MSP, has now stated that local suicide prevention actions will be considered as part of this. We need to make sure that focus continues and grows.
Every life lost to suicide is a unique, deeply felt tragedy which reverberates through families and communities for years. No one disputes that we need to continue to see the rate in Scotland fall, but there is still the case to be made that local suicide prevention work has been – and must continue to be – a key part of that.
Not everyone knows about these groups, yet everyone can join us to make sure their work can continue in a meaningful way.
So we want people to add their voices to our campaign to support local work; let’s keep the momentum going. And by doing so we will address suicide where it happens and where its impact is felt hardest – the houses and streets where we live.
Follow the link on our website and you can help raise awareness that Local Action Saves Lives.
James Jopling is the Executive Director For Samaritans Scotland
To sign up go to the Local Action Saves Lives campaign go to www.samaritans.org/action