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14 September 2022

Whitehall plans suicide prevention training for civil servants as recession looms

Economic downturns often coincide with suicide rate increases, so the government is discussing how its front-line staff can help the public.

By Anoosh Chakelian

With a recession imminent, the UK government is considering plans to train public servants in suicide prevention. Preparing front-line civil servants to help suicidal members of the public is part of a suicide prevention proposal that is under consultation in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Officials have been holding “deep-dive” meetings, the New Statesman understands, and the plan is expected to be implemented “early next year”. The idea was first mooted publicly by a government figure in June of this year, in a speech by Sajid Javid, who was the health secretary at the time. “The next few months are critical and we must do everything in our power to make sure that we support the most vulnerable as they deal with these financial pressures,” said Javid, whose brother took his own life.

Yet there is now doubt over the timetable, and where this training ranks in the priorities of Liz Truss’s new government, which has yet to appoint a minister for patient safety, suicide prevention and mental health. Javid resigned from the government over Boris Johnson’s leadership in July, and the new Health Secretary is Thérèse Coffey.

Although the reasons behind every suicide are complex and varied, past economic downturns have been associated with increased suicide rates. A recession is predicted before the end of this year, while living standards are forecast to fall by the largest amount on record because of surging energy and food prices.

Joe Potter, policy manager at Samaritans, a charity that helps people in emotional distress, said: “We know there’s strong evidence of an association between financial difficulties, like problem debt, for instance, mental health and suicide.

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“We try not to make predictions about future suicide rates. But we know there are well-established risk factors, which will be impacted by the [economic] crisis. In past recessions, there’s been personal unmanageable debt increases, job loss increases, and yes, in the past there has been an association between recession and an increase in suicide rates.”

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This effect is already being felt in some areas. “Our customer service team are talking to people who are suicidal,” revealed one senior figure at a major energy company. “Not because of energy bills per se, just like life is too much for them and the energy bill was the final straw, for example. People on the front line are already dealing with the most appalling things.”

[See also: The government ignores the Felixstowe port strike at its peril]

Two thirds of people who die by suicide in the UK have not been in touch with mental health services in the year before their death, according to Potter. That doesn’t mean they’re not known to other parts of the state. Nine in ten middle-aged men – the demographic most at risk of suicide – that killed themselves had been in touch with statutory services beforehand, according to a 2021 Manchester University study. These included services such as job centres, drug and alcohol provision, emergency departments and the criminal justice system.

“These are all really crucial touchpoints with the state that the government is already plugged into,” said Potter, who added that front-line officials working in “different elements of the state” are therefore well-placed to be “properly trained to understand and see the signs of someone struggling, and then signpost people on to more support”.

Suicide rates in England and Wales remain stubbornly high: at 10.7 deaths per 100,000 people, the rate is as high as it was 20 years ago. In April the government started putting together a ten-year mental health plan, which now includes the proposal to train civil servants to help suicidal people.

The latest suicide statistics, released on 6 September, revealed women under 24 have shown the biggest increase in suicide since records began. This trend is a particular concern given the predicted recession. Jacqui Morrissey, assistant director of research and influencing at Samaritans, commented: “Our research has shown that young people are likely to bear the brunt of the financial turmoil brought about by the pandemic, now made worse by the cost-of-living crisis.”

In response to a request for comment a DHSC spokesperson said: “The ministerial portfolios and further info on front-line public servants in suicide prevention will be announced in due course.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted around the clock on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. International helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

[See also: The real cost of Liz Truss’s energy plan is dizzying]