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11 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:25pm

What the Tories say about suicide is bad, but what they have failed to do is much worse

Gaffes are damaging, but it’s a lack of resources that’s hindering attempts to prevent suicide.

By Holly Thomas

“People in a range of different circumstances find themselves in a position where they think about committing suicide,” said Prime Minister Theresa May during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

“We must do everything that we can to ensure that people are prevented from committing suicide”, she continued.

It was clear that on the day she had announced the appointment of the world’s first ever minister for suicide, Jackie Doyle-Price, no one had briefed Theresa May that people do not “commit” suicide, because suicide is not a crime.  

(Samaritans advises that “took their own life”, “a suicide”, or “died by suicide” are preferable terms)

May’s phrasing was rightly criticised, not least because Wednesday was also World Mental Health Day, and the internet and its mum were watching. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that her new minister for suicide had previously joked about taking her own life, saying she’d “sooner jump off Beachy Head” than defect from the Tories.

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However, the Prime Minister and her staff’s crass ignorance around the discussion of suicide is dwarfed by the government’s gut-wrenching inadequacy regarding its prevention.

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May’s most explosive faux pas came earlier in her replies, when she stressed that “mental health is getting the attention it needs”, and that the government is ensuring “parity of esteem for mental health & physical health”.

This is not true. Mental health conditions in the UK account for 28 per cent of the disease burden, but receive 13.5 per cent of the NHS budget. Spending on adult social care services, which provide mental health support, has fallen by 13.5 per cent in the last eight years. That’s before the extra strain of the aging population is even taken into account. Saffron Cordery, director of policy at NHS Providers, has highlighted the “​chasm”​ between the policy commitments made by the government and the lived experience of front-line service users.

Even the insufficient funds promised aren’t getting through to where they’re needed. Analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows mental health trusts have been left with less funding in real terms than they had in 2012. The reality is so conspicuously at odds with the government’s rhetoric that on the same day Theresa May championed the government’s efforts to tackle suicide, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was forced to admit on Radio 4: “Mental health has simply not had the same level of support – both in terms of resources, but also in terms of how we as a society talk about it – compared to physical health.”

“It is still way off where we need to be,” he added.

Support is most deficient in the area the government has supposedly prioritised: youth mental health. Less than 1 per cent of the NHS budget is spent on CAMHS – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. These services are notoriously hard to access. According to a YoungMinds survey, 76 per cent of UK parents identified a deterioration in their child’s mental health while waiting for CAMHS support. 85 per cent of parents whose children waited more than six months reported that their condition deteriorated in the interim. If a mentally ill child doesn’t receive sufficient support then as they grow, their struggles may grow too. These are then carried with them into the adult world, which has little sympathy for those whose private illnesses prohibit them from being publicly useful.

According to recent analysis of NHS data, 43 per cent of claimants taking part in the government’s work capability assessment say they have attempted suicide after or during the process, soaring from 21 per cent in 2007. The figure is even worse for women, at 47 per cent. A series of secret internal inquiries revealed that Conservative ministers were repeatedly warned of the policy’s shortcomings, but took no action to compensate for them. The UN has condoned the UK government’s treatment of disabled people as a gross violation of their human rights. It also highlighted insufficient measures to improve employment for disabled people, which is in breach of EU law.

When SNP MP Ian Blackford challenged Theresa May on the punitive work capability assessments during PMQs, she replied: “I think it is right that we are encouraging people into the workplace… I think it is right that we maintain those assessments”. She offered no solution to the rise in suicide attempts.

Protestations continue to fall on deaf ears. Today, Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery wrote to the Prime Minister, pleading with her to reconsider the rollout of Universal Credit. He said: If the government continues to push forward this nonsensical and vicious agenda, they will have blood on their hands.” Number 10 is yet to respond. When a grieving daughter attributed her father’s suicide to the stress induced by Universal Credit two months ago, the Department for Work and Pensions’ response was: “Suicide is a very complex issue. Our staff are trained to identify and support vulnerable people and can refer them to specialist organisations for help.”

It isn’t simply lack of provision which shames the government when it comes to mental health. Its policies are directly aggravating the situation. Appointing a minister for suicide in a climate so aggressively calibrated to aggravate mental health issues without addressing the core problems is insulting. If Theresa May is serious about positive change she should stop posturing, and put her money where her mouth is. And then teach her mouth how to talk about suicide with the respect and compassion it deserves.