Suicide prevention `goes beyond scope of Department of Health'
HEALTH minister Robin Swann is to convene an inter-departmental co-ordination group on suicide prevention "as soon as possible" after an open letter calling on him to act was published.
Mr Swann said "those signing the letter published today are right to highlight suicide as one of the biggest challenges facing our society and that urgent action is needed".
He insisted prevention is "a top priority for my department and for me personally".
"I also recognise that our region has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK and that is not an acceptable situation for us a society.
"We need to all recognise the complex reasons why that is the case."
The cross-Departmental Ministerial Co-ordination Group on Suicide Prevention includes several executive ministers, as well as the chief medical officer and the chief executive of the Public Health Agency.
Founded in 2007, it met just 13 times in the decade before the collapse of the last administration.
That figure was obtained in 2016 by Mr Swann, then a backbench MLA, who accused the executive of being "quick to sound a fanfare when they set up ministerial subgroups" and demanding to know when it would "return to regular meetings".
He warned "there are some incredibly serious issues here that cannot be left on the shelf".
Yesterday, the new minister highlighted the existing initiatives put in place by the department, including a target for 50 per cent of frontline HSC staff to be trained in suicide prevention and the pilot project `Towards Zero Suicide' introduced in adult mental health services.
He also pointed to the The Multi Agency Triage Team (MATT) is currently operating in the Belfast and South Eastern health trusts allowing "the PSNI, NIAS (ambulance service) and... mental health professionals to work collaboratively, to ensure an individual receives the most appropriate care possible".
North Belfast priest Fr Gary Donegan, who revealed earlier this month that 27 young men in the parish had died by suicide, cautioned the health minister cannot solve the crisis alone.
"This isn't about throwing a poison chalice onto Robin and telling him to pick a silver bullet and solve everything," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"He has to realise we have his back. Civic society needs to step up to the plate too."
The Passionist priest called for "a mental health and suicide tsar" who would have "people trained to go into schools to talk to children".
"I'd like to invite Health Minister Robin Swann to come to north Belfast. He could be part of the solution. But we're all part of it.
Mr Swann agreed "in our communities and families it is so important that people feel able to talk about their worries and concerns, that we are all open to listening and supporting our friends, family and colleagues, and that we encourage this openness in our children".
Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said the SDLP is pushing for a "dedicated junior minister for Mental Health and Well Being to work across Executive departments to deal with this crisis and implement new Mental Health and Addiction action plans".
"This is an emergency that goes beyond the immediate remit of the Department of Health."
Sinn Féin mental health spokeswoman Órlaithí Flynn also said "suicide is not just a health issue, it is an issue for all in society", calling for "investment in crisis services and tackling the root causes of inequality and suffering".
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