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Wednesday, 13 October, 1999, 18:30 GMT 19:30 UK
Drive to reduce suicides
The government wants to reduce suicides by 20% in 10 years
The number of people committing suicide should be reduced by 20% in the next 10 years - saving up to 4,000 lives in total, according to the government's White Paper on public health.
Public Health

The figure is up by 3% from that contained in the Green Paper on public health.

The government estimates more than one person dies every two hours from suicide, although England's suicide rate is amongst the lowest in the European Union.

Some professions, such as farmers and doctors, are more at risk because of easier access to the means for committing suicide.

Mental Health
Mental illness is thought to cost the country 32.1m.

Mental health charities welcome the White Paper's focus on identifying and dealing with the possible factors behind mental illness, such as social exclusion and unemployment.

But they say the Department of Health would do better to invest more money in support services for those who are ill than setting suicide targets.

The government recommends a range of measures to improve mental health, including setting up a Task Force, headed by a well-known figure, to champion mental health, strengthening support systems and raising awareness of mental health, including in schools.

Also mentioned in the White Paper are:

  • plans to reduce access to methods of suicide, such as controlling pack sizes for paracetamol
  • Developing NHS Direct and links to specialist mental health helplines
  • Improving follow-up for people who have attempted suicide
  • Setting good practice guidelines
  • Supporting people at high risk of suicide
  • Ensuring mental health is a key outcome of other social inclusion programmes
  • Auditing suicides to learn prevention lessons

It says specific standards for improving mental health will be set out in new national service frameworks.

One in four

An estimated that one in four of the population is affected by mental illness.

The Samaritans, which operates a helpline for people who are feeling depressed and suicidal, says it is receiving an increasing number of calls from people with major mental health problems.


It "welcomes and considers essential the inclusion of a specific suicide reduction target" in the White Paper.

But it would like to see different targets for different groups.

"This would reflect the considerable variations between suicide rates that exist for different population groups," it said.

One of the highest risk groups for suicide is currently young men.

Suicide is currently the second biggest cause of death for men aged 15 to 24.

Although women are more likely to attempt suicide, young men are more likely to be successful.

One target

The Samaritans also expressed concerns about having just one national target for mental health.

Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said it was debatable whether suicide was the best way to measure mental health.

But the King's Fund health charity says the government's policy has been to reduce the previous administration's concentration on national targets and to focus instead on setting local priorities.

A spokesman said this would help to involve people more in public health improvements and would therefore be more likely to achieve success.

"It is very hard to have headline indicators for mental health," he said. "A lot depends on local action."

He added that mental health problems could be very different from one community to another.

Judi Clements of Mind welcomed the White Paper's focus on poverty and deprivation.

"Tackling the root causes of mental health problems with preventative measures is far more effective in the long-term than traditional symptom-based treatments."

She said the mental health strategy needed to be integrated with other social exclusion policies and to be sufficiently monitored.

Mind also wants to see the health skills programme announced in the White Paper include emotional and mental wellbeing as well as physical health.

Marjorie Wallace of mental health charity SANE said the focus on public awareness of mental health was good, but there was no point in creating more awareness of crisis services were not available.

"It would be better if they could set more realistic aims about improving mental health services for all those who need them," she said.

But she added that this would involve more resources being poured in to increasing the number of beds for mentally ill people, the number of staff working in the field and the availability of new, more effective drugs.

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