Northern Ireland news

Charity that aims to reduce suicide levels to nil wins council support for first time

A Downpatrick based group wants a 'zero approach' to suicide, in the same way government tackles road safety deaths
Seanín Graham

In day two of The Irish News focus on mental health, Seanin Graham speaks to one group lobbying for a 'zero' approach to suicide. It already has the backing of Newry, Mourne and Down council and hopes that its approach will be formally adopted by more councils across Northern Ireland.

A CO DOWN group which lobbies for a "zero approach" to suicide has successfully sought backing form a council to adopt its thinking - the first authority in the Northern Ireland to do so.

The Downpatrick charity, Suicide Down to Zero, believes government should tackle suicide prevention in the same way it deals with road deaths and strive to reduce the level to nil.

The group has been working with Newry, Mourne and Down Council and asked them to formally change its policy to fall into line with their aim as opposed to the Department of Health target.

Down is second only to Belfast in the number of suicide deaths and its councillors unanimously backed the move. Earlier this month, funding was approved to roll out a strategy at community level.

"It means that rather than following the government line in seeking a 10 per cent reduction in suicide deaths over the next five years, their option, like ours is zero," explained Pat McGreevy, co-founder and secretary of the charity.

"They're now looking to appoint a particular person who has the responsibility for making this happen across the council area. They would draw together all the local groups involved in suicide prevention and mental health promotion into a working group to progress this and put up a small grant scheme. It's in process.

"In terms of our group, we believe that's quite a victory. We found our influence at government level was limited so we took a decision we would try to influence from community level and bottom up. We are now lobbying Belfast City Council but it's early days."

Founded six years ago, half of the Co Down group is made up of individuals bereaved through suicide who deliver approved suicide prevention and awareness training across schools and workplaces.

Based on a successful American model – the Henry Ford health system - the zero tolerance approach was piloted by the Mersey Care NHS Trust in north west England where they reduced suicide rates by 23 per cent in three years.

In 2015, The Irish News revealed details of private correspondence in which former health minister Simon Hamilton said he would "monitor the learning" from English projects and "consider" how "any of the successful features can be adopted into the overall approach" to suicide prevention in the north.

But the DUP minister wrote of his concerns at the time about "striking the balance" and said that a "direct focus" on suicide in public information campaigns may lead to a "normalisation" of the issue.

Last December the north's five main health trusts announced it was launched a 'towards zero' programme, but this would only apply to those in the mental health system and in prisons.

Mr McGreevy said the the vast majority of suicides in the north were not linked to mental health problems. He also rejected the idea that talking openly about the subject could lead to its normalisation.

"Talking about suicide is not going to put the idea into someone's head, that is a complete myth. The only way preventing suicide is open and direct talk," he said.

"We were conducting a training session a few weeks ago with people who volunteer for a vulnerable group. We came to the part where we emphasised the need to talk openly and directly about suicide. One of the young men present said "I'd rather have an awkward conversation than a dead friend". I thought it was pure gold."

The campaign group said it also supports the creation of 'crisis cafes', modelled on similar initiatives in the UK and Scandinavian countries, where those in need of support or their relatives could receive face to face help.

"I believe the crisis cafe is probably the way to go - it's an aspiration we work to. When someone is in crisis, they may contact Lifeline helpline and that is a vital service which also provides follow-up counselling. But the person who is in distress to the point of suicide may want to talk to someone face to face. That's what these centres would provide immediately," added Mr McGreevy.

"The key thing is when a person is worried about their relative and they're not sure what's going on they need to speak to someone. The counsellor in the crisis cafe provides 'suicide first aid' - and the person is leaving knowing that something is being done be it information or signposting or putting a 'safe plan' in place for a suicidal person."

HELPLINE NUMBERS

-The Suicide Down to Zero group can be contacted on 07809441950 or 07852931845 or email suicidedowntozero0000@gmail.com

- The confidential service Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also access the Lifeline website at www.lifelinehelpline.info

- The Samaritans can be contacted on 084 5790 9090

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