We must tackle suicide rates with early and effective intervention – Lynn Bell

We must act before people reach a point of no return, says Lynn Bell

Lynn Bell, CEO of LOVE, Member of the Scottish Childrens Services Coalition

As today marks World Mental Health Day, we get the opportunity as a society to raise awareness of mental health issues and advocate against the social stigma that it unfortunately still comes with.

Every year, close to 800,000 people in the world take their own life, and suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 in the UK. In light of this, it is remarkably appropriate that the theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health for this year places the attention on suicide and its prevention.

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In August last year, the Scottish Government announced a Suicide Prevention Action Plan: Every Life Matters, which aimed to reduce the rate of suicide by 20 per cent between 2017-2022. In it, it pledged £3 million to be invested in establishing a National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group to help support the creation and delivery of local prevention action plans at national, regional and local levels.

Although the government is to be applauded for this initiative, its efficacy is very much in question as statistics from the NHS report that the number of suicides has increased 15 per cent within its first year.

Moreover, it is also estimated that the suicides among those aged 15 to 24 have increased by 50 per cent in the same year. This devastating and ongoing trend is also evidence that not enough support is being given to young people struggling with mental health problems.

Mental health problems have been labelled as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. It is estimated that one in five children will experience a mental health difficulty at least once in their first 11 years. By the time they’re 16, roughly three children in every class will have experienced mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and self-harm. Half of all adults who are mentally ill experienced the onset of their mental health problems by the age of 14.

Although the increase of those coming forward with mental health problems is a sign that the social stigma is beginning to fade, this is clearly putting already stretched and under-resourced services under intense pressure.

The latest figures that were published on September 2019, indicate that child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) waiting times in Scotland, highlighted that over 30 per cent of young people seeking help on their mental health did not commence their treatment within the Scottish Government’s 18-week waiting time target, itself still far too long to wait.

Like ourselves, the Auditor General and Accounts Commission reported the need for a change in how the public sector responds to the mental health needs of children and young people, noting a concern that the current system is geared towards specialist care and responding to crises, rather than being focused on early intervention and prevention.

Without early and effective intervention, these conditions can clearly have a significant impact on their life chances and, in the worst cases, can aggravate to a point of no return, which is what we are witnessing with the latest suicide rates.

That is why we need all partners working in the sector, including the Scottish Government, to refocus on prevention and early mental health intervention, seeking to not only reduce the burden on CAMHS provision but to also raise younger generations to be mentally fit adults.

Moreover, the cost-advantages of prevention and early intervention when it comes to mental health cannot be under-estimated. As an example, the cost of five sessions of school-based counselling is equivalent to just one contact with CAMHS. Therefore, investing a fraction of the mental health budget on school counselling services helps to keep the individual in school, as well as reducing the burden on stretched and costly CAMHS provision.

To its great credit, the Scottish Government is to be applauded for its commitment on this year’s Programme for Government to keep providing significant investment in school based mental health support, such as counselling services and school nurses, to ensure that every secondary school has a counselling service.

However, there is still much work to be done to tackle the frightening numbers of suicides in Scotland.

In order to achieve this, on this World Mental Health Day, let’s make sure that every life does indeed matter by ensuring that the private, public and third sector work in closer partnership to reduce the number of suicides taking place. This requires to not only prevent adults committing suicide, but to also ensure that mental health problems are approached at early stages so they do not aggravate during adult life to a point of no return.

Lynn Bell, CEO of LOVE, Member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition