Leading article

More needs to be done to tackle suicide epidemic

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has urged the Department of Health to take action to tackle the appalling suicide rate, which he has described as an `epidemic.'

Mr Durkan knows from personal experience the terrible devastation caused to families as a result of suicide. His sister, Gay, died by suicide in 2011, her death coming as a huge shock to everyone who knew her.

The former minister has written to the health department's permanent secretary Richard Pengelly asking for a suicide prevention taskforce to be established in Foyle but we know that this is a major issue which impacts on the whole of Northern Ireland.

According to provisional figures from the Public Health Agency, there were 305 deaths from suicide in 2017.

This represents an increase on the previous year when there were 297 deaths.

It is shocking to think that more people in the north have died as a result of suicide since 1998 than were killed during the Troubles.

The question is why our suicide rates have escalated in recent years and what is being done to address this distressing toll?

What is clear is that the rates are much worse in areas of greatest deprivation, around three and a half times higher than the least deprived areas.

Belfast trust had the highest rates between 2014 and 2016 with particular spikes in the north and west of the city.

The council areas worst affected outside Belfast were Newry, Mourne and Down, Antrim and Newtownabbey and Derry and Strabane.

We know that suicide and self-harm is linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues but it is also the case that many families who have suffered the loss of a loved one have expressed concern at the level of support provided by the healthcare system.

In particular, patients may have to wait lengthy periods before they can access counselling or other therapies while busy GPs generally don't have as much time as they would like to talk to those seeking help.

It must be recognised that relatives struggling to deal with someone in crisis also need advice and support.

Mr Durkan has described the number of deaths as an epidemic and it is difficult to argue with that when hundreds of people are dying every year.

Among other measures, he is advocating awareness and resilience training in schools and this is an excellent idea which would help young people better understand and cope with emotional stress.

It is important to pay tribute to the excellent voluntary and community organisations and dedicated healthcare staff who work hard to help people in distress.

However, the unacceptably high level of deaths tells us much more needs to be done to prevent people taking their own lives.

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