NSPO Director

Appointment of the Director of the Natioanl Suicide Prevention Office Dail Eireann debate 1st March 2012

Deputy Dan Neville

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the important issue of the appointment of a director to the National Office for Suicide Prevention following the retirement in October of Mr. Geoff Day, who was appointed to the post in 2005. I am concerned that in five months no replacement has been appointed. I wish to recognise the service of the acting director, Catherine Brogan, who is also the national planning specialist for mental health.

However, a full appointment is urgent, not least because of a 25% increase in suicide levels in the past two years. The latest statistics for 2012 show 486 people died from suicide with 127 non-determined deaths. It is internationally recognised that it is more accurate to include non-determined deaths as suicide which, if applied to the 2010 figures, mean more than 600 people died from suicide. For comparison purposes, 185 people died in road accidents. The success of the Road Safety Authority should be a template for how to tackle the issue of suicide.

On numerous occasions over the past 12 months, I called for an increase in the budget for the National Office for Suicide Prevention. I sincerely welcome the 2012 increase from €4.7 million to €7.7 million, the extra €3 million coming from the €35 million allocated to the implementation budget for A Vision for Change. With such a substantial increase to the office’s budget, it is important a director is appointed to apply this investment to ensure there is a planned and detailed programme with clear targets and objectives to reduce suicide and related issues. The programme for implementation must also have checks and balances to deal with other areas such as parasuicide. Last year, 9,630 people attended accident and emergency departments due to parasuicide. Conservative estimates put the figure for attempted suicide or self-harm between 60,000 and 70,000 last year.

The person appointed to the directorship should have a clear knowledge and understanding of the areas of suicide, international and national research such as that of the National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork, the prevention of suicide and bereavement of suicide support. It is also important the director has a role outside the Health Service Executive, HSE. Societal factors and others apply to the whole area of suicide prevention. There must be an understanding on the part of the director about the involvement of organisations and other Departments, apart from the mental health section of the Department of Health, such as the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, in suicide prevention. The director must not have an approach that confines the office to the HSE where it is stationed but one that includes broader societal agencies in suicide prevention. These broader societal factors are mirrored in the office’s implementation programme. It is absolutely urgent a director is appointed to organise, implement and execute that programme.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall): I thank Deputy Neville for raising this important issue for which we all share his concerns. I am taking this topical issue on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, Minister of State with responsibility for mental health issues, who cannot be present today.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention was established by the HSE in 2005 to implement Reach Out, the national strategy for action on suicide prevention. The office is guided by an advisory group comprising individuals with considerable knowledge and expertise around suicide prevention and mental health promotion. The work of the office is constantly evolving and its programme of activities is focused on evidence-based interventions and also involves the funding of new research and pilot projects.

My ministerial colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is very much aware the national office plays a key role in developing and supporting initiatives related to suicide prevention. Since the launch of Reach Out and the establishment of the national office, there has been a significant amount of cross-sectorial working which has resulted in considerable advances in suicide prevention.

Initiatives include the ASIST and Safetalk training programmes, the tough economic times programme and the mental health awareness campaigns. Support has also been given to voluntary organisations in their work on suicide prevention. All-island co-operation in the areas of promoting positive mental health and tackling the issue of suicide has been promoted. Funding has also been provided for several suicide community assessment nurses, SCAN, to work in primary care to provide an effective and co-ordinated response for people who are in distress. A working group has been established to address the issue of reducing access to the means of suicide and self-harm in a national and co-ordinated way. In addition, the national office recently established a working group to review again the current activities in this area and to determine the priorities within suicide prevention to ensure we maximise the available resources.

The former director of the national office, Geoff Day, retired last September. I thank him for his contribution and commitment over the years in the area of suicide prevention. Having regard to the importance of the work of the office, the HSE appointed an acting director while expressions of interest were sought for the permanent position. The closing date for receipt of applications was 3 February and interviews will take place later this month. It is expected the appointment to the permanent position should take place shortly thereafter.

The Government recognises the issue of suicide prevention is one of the most urgent challenges currently facing society. It is committed to further developing our mental health and suicide prevention services. This commitment was clearly shown in budget 2012 which provided for a special allocation of €35 million for mental health in line with programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to strengthen the community mental health teams in both adult and children’s mental health services and to implement prioritised suicide prevention measures.

I thank Deputy Neville for raising this matter.

Deputy Dan Neville

I thank the Minister for her response. It is important the work of the suicide resource officers who are allocated to the former health board areas should come under the auspices of the National Office for Suicide Prevention. It is vital their work, which also includes suicide bereavement and promoting good mental health, is co-ordinated with the office.

We have the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe after Lithuania, Finland and Estonia. We have a very serious youth suicide problem. We require a programme headed by a person at the level of assistant national director. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, promised that a national director of mental health would be appointed to oversee mental health services. The appointment must be made immediately. I have expressed my repeated concern on the allocation of the €35 million to ensure the objectives of the Government and those outlined in A Vision for Change are implemented according to the will of the Government and best practice. The appointment of the director is vital, as is the appointment of the director of the National Office for Suicide Prevention.

Deputy Róisín Shortall

I acknowledge the expertise and commitment of Deputy Neville in this important area and the tremendous work he has done in that regard. We accept the point he made. We are determined to ensure that mental health services are provided locally at community level for both adults and children. That is why there has been such a clear commitment on the additional funding for this year’s budget, notwithstanding the difficult economic situation generally.

I assure the Deputy that the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is determined to develop the services to meet the considerable demand that exists. She has been particularly vocal about the need to establish a national director for mental health services. That will happen in the coming months. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.