Putting suicide prevention and Mental Health first in Local Government.
Patrick has been an Alliance Party Councillor for the Rowallane ward since 2014. He was re-elected to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in May this year and his first motion to Council in the new term was about suicide prevention.
Last month I tabled a motion at June’s Council meeting calling on Newry, Mourne and Down Council to do more to tackle suicide and address poor mental health across the district. The motion was referred to a committee and passed unanimously by all elected representatives on the 17th June. The full wording of the motion is at the bottom of this post, but to summarise it will do four things.
- Adopt a 'suicide down to zero' approach to tackling suicide prevention, meaning the Council strives towards the goal of having zero suicides across the District.
- Establishing a suicide prevention working group to plan how this target can be met.
- Calling on the Department of Health to implement the Protect Life 2 strategy, which would see much more funding for mental health services in NI.
- Setting up a small grants scheme for community/voluntary groups working in suicide prevention and mental health. More information about these grants can be found here -
My reason for bringing this motion is that Northern Ireland is in the grips of a suicide and mental health crisis, exacerbated by a perfect storm of austerity cuts and political failure.
More people have died by suicide (over 4500) since the Good Friday Agreement, than died as a result of the Troubles.
Parts of this district have had some of the highest rates of suicide in the UK and our District experiences the highest number of suicides of any area outside Belfast.
We have a 25% higher rate of poor mental than the rest of the UK, yet we spend far less per capita on mental health services.
NHS England spends approximately 12% of its annual budget on these services, yet the Department of Health in NI spends just 7%. Part of the reason the problem is worse here is the intergenerational trauma inherited from the conflict, with evidence showing the correlation between higher rates of poor mental health and living in a post-conflict society, particularly amongst young people.
We are also facing one of the biggest challenges ever to basic wellbeing and human dignity for the most vulnerable in society in the form of welfare reform. Insidious Tory-imposed cuts to social support have been credited, in a peer reviewed study, with the preventable deaths of over 120,000 people across the UK since the beginning of austerity in 2010.
Whilst NI was able to secure some, albeit minor, mitigations to this, these will soon lapse in the absence of the executive. And the absence of a government for over 900 days also means we are not making the strategic decisions and investments needed to reform our health service and in particular bring our mental health service up to standard.
Strategies such as 'Protect Life 2' would make significant steps towards reducing suicide, but tragically, it is gathering dust on a civil servant’s shelf because of the inability of our two largest parties to work together, compromise and show leadership in the interests of the greater good.
I would say there are few people reading this who are lucky enough not to have known someone who lost their lives to suicide. When it happens, the pain and grief spreads through communities, unfortunately often causing a ripple effect of mental health issues and patterns of suicide. That’s why it’s vital we work at the local level to address this issue.
Whilst Stormont continues to fail us, councils need to do their part to pick up the slack. In the last council term 3 other motions relating to mental health and suicide were discussed by Councillors. However, none of them actually committed Council to using its own resources to tackle this issue.
They were similar to other motions where politicians ‘welcome’, ‘condemn’ or ’note’ an issue without actually following up with action. This motion is different because it calls on Council to put its money where its mouth is and actually develop practical strategies to tackle this issue in our area.
It’s my hope that the projects funded by this programme would focus on three key areas which have been identified as a priority by several local community/voluntary groups:
1. Public awareness raising on the need to bring suicide down to zero.
2. Training carried out with public and private sector bodies to help identify any warning signs of suicidal ideation.
3. Support and recovery services for those grieving as a result of suicide.
Whilst the resources Council can dedicate to this cause pale in comparison to what Stormont can (and should) be doing, it’s my hope that we can have a positive impact on tackling the suicide and mental health crisis, and at least we, as your local Councillors, can say we did what we could.
The full motion wording was:
This Council will adopt a ‘suicide down to zero’ approach to combating the high prevalence of suicide across our district. It commits to closer partnership working with local mental health and suicide prevention charities and will establish a suicide prevention working group with a dedicated Council officer responsible, meeting quarterly with representation from all party groupings and the necessary resources to develop and implement a strategy to deliver the commitment of bringing suicides in the district down to zero.
The Council will establish a new small grants scheme within the existing financial assistance programme to fund projects specifically dealing with mental heath and suicide in the district, the criteria and performance of which will be drawn up by the working group and monitored by the Active and Healthy Communities Directorate.
Council will also write to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health lamenting the abject failure of the Department to implement the Protect Life 2 strategy, and that this strategy should have been signed off regardless of the absence of an Executive given its vital lifesaving and non-contentious nature.’
Thank you Patrick for your contribution to the blog. Thank you also for the encouragement you have given to my small efforts.
This blog is not a political one, it’s a mental health one. Patrick was kind enough to offer this piece and share insights into the work he is involved in. Me sharing this is not necessarily endorsing one political party over the other but rather a show of thanks for a Councillor working actively in mental health. Any representative from any party would be afforded the same right in this blog.