Health ministers, concerned that "cries for help" are being ignored, are to announce a national strategy for reducing the number of suicides in Britain by a sixth.
The policy, to be announced in the White Paper on Public Health next month, will include proposals to support GPs who are often the first port of call for people contemplating killing themselves.
They will be sent fact sheets of recognisable symptoms to help them spot patients with suicidal tendencies. They will also receive regularly updated information on local support groups, such as psychiatric counsellors and the Samaritans.
Suicides claimed 6,000 lives in 1997 and although the rate is now slowly reducing in the population as a whole, it is increasing in certain groups, especially the mentally ill.
One person kills themselves every 82 minutes according to estimates by the Samaritans. There is a suicide attempt every three minutes, and suicide rates are higher than average in Scotland.
The Government is devising strategies for high-risk groups, such as drug users and young men. In 1997, 1,759 young men between the ages of 15 and 34 killed themselves compared to 412 women of the same age.
Research shows that in the weeks before committing suicide many young men visit their GP complaining of physical symptoms such as stomach trouble, headaches and back pain.
Young men are less disposed to discuss depression or suicide and favour violent methods of killing themselves such as jumping in front of trains, hanging, or jumping off bridges. Suicidal women, who are generally more open about discussing their feelings, tend to take overdoses from which they often recover and are discovered by friends and family and rushed to hospital.
Doctors' groups fear that hard-pressed GPs, who have less than 12 minutes on average to see each patient, will end up bearing too great a burden unless they are given proper back-up. Most GPs already receive advice on how to spot mental health problems, but specific suicide training is scant.
"Often people contemplating suicide will go to a GP and present physical symptoms. GPs need a reminder that fit, healthy-looking young men may also be susceptible to suicide," said Bill O'Neill, Ethics and Health Policy Adviser at the British Medical Association.
"The focus needs to be on reminding doctors that there are groups at particular risk but also a recognition that GPs need the support to deal with it."
The new plan will tie in with the Government's strategy on mental health which includes greater support for mentally ill people in the community. The Samaritans has recently seen an increase in the number of calls from people with serious psychiatric problems.
Suicide is linked to severe depression, and areas of Britain with high unemployment, drug use and low incomes will be targeted.
Groups counselling the suicidal were supportive of the Government's target but sceptical about its ability to reduce suicide rates significantly.
"A new government strategy is not going to make a great difference," said a spokeswoman for the Samaritans. "Suicides will not drop overnight. They will still occur and the Samaritans will always be there."Reuse content