Debate introduced by Dan Neville TD on the 25% increase in suicide in 2009. 1st July 2010
Deputy Dan Neville
I appreciate the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the frightening increase in the rate of suicide. The provisional suicide figures for 2009 show that the number of deaths by suicide has increased by 25%, from 424 in 2008 to 527 last year. I suggest the real figure is much higher because there is a serious level of under-reporting of suicide. Experts estimate that the true figure is as high as 650. It is worth noting that 239 people died in road accidents last year. In 2008, the level of HSE funding to the National Office for Suicide Prevention was €5.1 million and the State grant to the Road Safety Authority was an inadequate €40.4 million. Figures will be published tomorrow to confirm that 11,966 people presented to hospital in 2009 having attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm. For every person who presents at hospital, at least six more people are thought to engage in self-harm. Therefore, the true figure for self-harm is approximately 70,000. The Government must recognise and respond to the level of suicidal behaviour, which requires an emergency response.
I wish to outline why I think this profound increase in suicide is taking place. During recessionary times, there is a sudden gap between material needs and resources. In economic downturns, frustration increases as an increasing proportion of people fail to meet their financial goals. There is clear evidence that suicide is linked to financial difficulties. The WHO has identified that the potential psychological impact of economic recession on public health is severe. Job loss, job insecurity, job uncertainty, economic strain, loss of income, home repossession and restricted access to credit lead to a reduction in mental well-being, an increase in mental health problems and mental ill-health, increased substance misuse, especially alcohol and drugs, and intimate relationship breakdown and divorce. There is a loss of perceived social worth, purpose and daily structure, a reduction in social contact, an increase in social isolation, and an increased risk of suicidal behaviour, non-fatal self-harm and completed suicides. A protracted period of unemployment, especially at a young age, seems to have a particularly deleterious effect on the mental health of young men, regardless of their social background. Rates of suicide are three to four times higher among those who are unemployed.
The Minister for Health and Children and the HSE must respond to the changes in society that are leading to higher rates of suicide and problems associated with mental illness. The failure of the Government to invest resources in mental health services, including suicide prevention, is one of the main contributory factors. I will set out a hypothesis relating to why the Government may be choosing not to invest in this social health issue. The stigma surrounding mental health issues and suicide is a barrier to the Government meeting the demands of society. Each Government responds to the expressed demands of the electorate. The demand for the Government to deal with suicide and mental health problems is not expressed due to the stigma associated with such matters. We hear about many problems when we knock on doors, but hear little about mental health. As we wish to protect ourselves and others from this stigma in some way, we do not demand the services that are badly needed for us or our family members. True political leadership must respond to the politically unexpressed needs of society. The Government is not doing this because there are no votes in it.
Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Pat Carey)
I thank Deputy Neville for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I compliment and commend him on the work he is doing in this area. The Government is aware that suicide continues to be a significant public health issue. Its prevention is a major challenge for health and social services at all levels. Suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. The heartache of a family’s grief cannot be underestimated or ignored. As a nation, we must continue to ensure we take all steps to prevent suicide. I am conscious that a discussion on figures, rates of suicide and policy strategies can seem detached from the individual tragedies represented by such statistics. The provisional figures presented for 2009 show a 24% increase over the 2008 figures. Caution should be exercised when comparing the 2009 statistics with those for 2008, however, as both figures are provisional. Nevertheless, the increase in the rate of suicide in 2009 is of great concern. The Department of Health and Children is consulting the HSE to consider what measures can be taken to counteract this worrying trend. The largest increase has occurred in the 25 to 44 age group. We will need to target this group to stop the continuing rise in suicide.
It may be too early to quantify the effect of the current economic climate on mental health, but there is no doubt the crisis is placing a greater strain on many people and their families. As public representatives, we meet individuals and representatives of various groups every day. In the course of such meetings, people express concerns and fears about the impact the recession is having on their lives and their work. Mental health promotion is key to minimising the consequences of the recession. In 2009, the National Office for Suicide Prevention launched two worthwhile initiatives which highlight the practical things we can do to protect our mental health – an information booklet, Suicide Prevention in the Workplace, as well as information leaflets and wallet cards on the theme of “looking after mental health during tough economic times”. Other initiatives developed by the office include the development and implementation of national training programmes; the development of a training strategy under the direction of a training and development officer; the progression of the availability of self-harm services through hospital emergency departments; the implementation of recommendations arising from a review of bereavement services; the appointment of dedicated suicide resource officers; the provision of funding to the National Suicide Research Foundation; the roll-out of support to voluntary organisations working in the field of suicide prevention; and the development of mental health awareness campaigns.
The elimination of the stigma associated with mental illness is key to good mental health. Stigma can affect all aspects of life, limit access to employment and housing, harm social relationships and reduce self-esteem. Fear of being labelled as having a mental health problem reduces the likelihood of individuals with mental health difficulties seeking treatment.
As many Deputies will be aware, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and mental health, Deputy John Moloney, recently launched See Change, the national stigma reduction campaign. The aim of this campaign is to reduce the stigma people feel and to encourage them to seek help. The campaign will inspire people to challenge their beliefs about mental illness and to be more open in their attitudes and behaviour. It will also encourage people to support a friend or loved one who is experiencing a mental health problem. Our vision is to achieve a change in Irish social attitudes and behaviour and to reduce the level of discrimination and prejudice. In order to help make that vision a reality and to positively change attitudes it is proposed to develop a range of national and local activities aimed at giving focused messages to the general public and target groups. The campaign will include radio programmes, media interviews, a new website, newspaper articles and school presentations.
The tragedy of suicide affects every community in the country. The Government is firmly committed to reducing suicide, as part of a whole community effort to ensure that people in distress do not feel isolated and alone. While a discussion on figures, rates of suicide and policy strategies can seem very detached from the individual tragedies represented by these figures, I want to assure Deputy Neville that this Government is firmly committed to tackling suicide in this country