Suicide is preventable

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Professor Rory O'Connor on how the Scottish Government's new suicide strategy can address why more people chose to take their own lives in 2016

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14th November 2017 by TFN Guest 2 Comments

For the first time in six years, the number of suicides in Scotland has risen. 728 people died by suicide in 2016 – that’s 56 more deaths compared to 2015. Although it isn’t clear whether this increase is a trend, we cannot be complacent and we need to ensure that suicide prevention remains a national priority. 

The tragedy of suicide is it's preventable. Early identification and effective action can get people the care they need. We know that men aged 20 to 29 and 40 to 49 are most at risk, and suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50. The figures above don’t capture the numbers of people attempting or considering suicide but they highlight that scale of the challenge we face. The stark reality is that suicide prevention does not receive anything like the level of financial investment it needs.

Professor Rory O'Connor

Professor Rory O'Connor

We need greater understanding about the thoughts behind suicidal thinking and awareness about suicide, its devastating impact on families, friends and communities and the steps we can take collectively to prevent more deaths. Psychologists, for example, must be utilised to play a bigger role in making sense of complicated and connected causes of suicidal behaviour.

But we must remember that the many people who live with mental health problems never seek professional help and that no single policy in isolation will tackle suicide. This means that there is a role for all of us to identify and support those experiencing distress.

We need a society-wide approach to develop and implement best practice interventions. It is in this spirit that we have set out our calls to action in a new position statement – to help policy and decision-makers develop the next suicide prevention framework. We want to see a roll out of suicide prevention training for all NHS staff, pharmacists and GPs to ensure early identification; greater co-ordinated action on re-integrating prisoners to their communities and providing direct and immediate support for first responders, families and friends in the aftermath of a suicide could all help avoid the unnecessary waste of life.

Scotland has made progress in tackling stigma, discrimination and increasing awareness of suicide but the responsibility cannot sit with health professionals alone. International evidence shows that restricting access to means of suicide will lead to fewer instance of suicide.  

Public awareness campaigns to support more effective intervention and the responsible reporting of suicide in print, broadcast, internet and on social media can reduce stigma about mental health problems and encourage people to seek help. Improved mental health training and education in schools is vital so that young people are better equipped to ask for help.

The Scottish Government is reviewing and updating its suicide prevention strategy and action plan. The previous strategy had a welcome focus on responding to people in distress, talking about suicide and improving the NHS response. And until 2016 we were making good progress in reducing instances of suicide. To ensure 2016 figures do not represent a new trend, the new approach must cut across all areas of government and beyond, be informed by evidence and prioritise the early identification of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

But this must be matched with more investment into public mental health interventions and research into psychosocial solutions. Without adequate funding we cannot ensure that those discharged from hospital, following self-harm or a suicide attempt, receive a follow-up appointment within three days or that GPs are trained to identifying signs and symptoms of suicidal behaviour or that our approach is informed by the most accurate research.

A commitment to suicide prevention means those at risk (as well as their families and carers) and those directly affected by suicide receive the care they need and deserve at the right time. Understanding the psychological and social issues informing suicidal behaviour is vital to enabling effective prevention and intervention. To ensure the next strategy builds on the progress made, prevention, early intervention and research into innovative psychosocial interventions must be at its core.  

Professor Rory O'Connor leads the Suicide Research Lab at the University of Glasgow and is a member of the British Psychological Society.

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14th November 2017 by Fiona French

I have spent most of my adult life (40 years) consulting with psychiatrists and consuming antidepressants and a benzodiazepine but at no time did they ever recognise that I was suffering adverse drug effects, including many suicide attempts. Only in 1981 did a neurologist suggest the drugs may be making my health worse, yet I was never given support to taper off those drugs. It is now 2017 and I have been off all drugs for several years. I am left brain damaged and disabled. The severity of drug withdrawal was such that I wanted to die many times. Others in the same boat often feel suicidal. It seems strange to me that this is never mentioned in discussions about suicide. It is assumed that people who are suicidal have "mental health" issues. No mention is made of the many patients who are being made suicidal as a direct result of either consuming or withdrawing from psychiatric drugs. These drugs alter the brain chemistry and that can have devastating consequences. The Scottish Government has no plans to set up services for the many patients now consuming psychiatric drugs and who would like to withdraw from them. The impression is given in the media that the doctor will be able to help with mental health issues. Sadly this can be the start of even worse problems for a proportion of patients. If Scotland is to have an effective suicide prevention policy it must also address the adverse effects of trying to withdraw from psychiatric drugs. I do not see this issue being addressed.

15th November 2017 by Marion Brown

Please be aware that medications - and including antidepressants - can and do lead to suicides. Many people (including doctors) do not realise this. Patients taking these medicines 'as prescribed' may develop Akathisia - a condition of severe agitation (mental and physical) which is unbearable. Doctors and patients families need to know and recognise the risks and signs of medication toxicity. Please see the very relevant work on the website of Antidepaware. In all cases people may suffer very bizarre and troubling effects (mental and physical) from taking these and other psychiatric medications (interactions, side effects, tolerance and withdrawal effects) and often their doctors and families do not believe what patients are telling them. Knowledge of these issues is extremely important in understanding what may drive people to end their lives by suicide - and to preventing such terrible tragedy.