Government promises £1.5m research funding into suicide prevention


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The Independent Online

The Government has promised to pump £1.5 million into research exploring how to prevent suicides among those most at risk of taking their own lives.

The pledge comes as ministers unveiled a new suicide prevention strategy that is aiming to cut the suicide rate and provide more support to bereaved families

Funding will be used to look at how suicides can be reduced among people with a history of self-harm.

Researchers will also focus on cutting suicides among children and young people and exploring how and why suicidal people use the internet.

Launching the new strategy to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, Care Services Minister Norman Lamb said: "One death to suicide is one too many - we want to make suicide prevention everyone's business.

"Over the last 10 years there has been real progress in reducing the suicide rate, but it is still the case that someone takes their own life every two hours in England.

"We want to reduce suicides by better supporting those most at risk and providing information for those affected by a loved one's suicide."

Around 4,200 people in England took their own lives in 2010 and suicide continues to be a public health issue - especially in the current period of economic uncertainty, the Department of Health said.

The suicide rate is highest amongst men aged between 35-49, while men are three times more likely than women to take their own life, according to statistics.

The new strategy, which is being backed by charity the Samaritans, is the first in more than 10 years.

Under the fresh approach, the government will work with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to help parents ensure their children are not accessing harmful suicide-related websites.

It will also aim to reduce opportunities for suicide by ensuring prisons and mental health facilities keep people safer.

Improved support for high-risk groups - such as those with mental health problems and people who self-harm - and well as those bereaved or affected by suicide will also be offered.

Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group, Professor Louis Appleby said: "Suicide does not have one cause - many factors combine to produce an individual tragedy.

"Prevention too must be broad - communities, families and front-line services all have a vital role.

"The new strategy will renew the drive to lower the suicide rate in England."

Around 50 national organisations from the voluntary, statutory and private sectors have also agreed to work together to tackle suicide by sharing best practice and providing support to those in need.

Samaritans chief executive Catherine Johnstone said: "We are encouraged that the government has taken this step in continuing to acknowledge the importance of suicide prevention.

"We firmly believe that suicide can be prevented by making sure people get support when they need it, how they need it and where they need it.

"This means we all have to try harder to reach people who may not now be talking to anyone about the problems they face."

The suicide prevention initiative came just days after Mr Lamb and fellow health minister Anna Soubry reignited the debate over assisted suicide for those with terminal health conditions.

Ms Soubry called for more "honesty" on the issue, saying it was "ridiculous and appalling" that people were having to go abroad to end their life because assisting suicide remains a crime punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment in England and Wales.

And Liberal Democrat Mr Lamb, who like his Conservative colleague was appointed to the health team in last week's reshuffle, said he believed there was "a strong case" for the present law to be reconsidered.

Their comments came shortly after the death of Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer of locked-in syndrome, who died a week after he lost his legal bid to end his life with a doctor's help.

Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman today said there were no plans to make Government time available for a debate on assisted suicide in the House of Commons.

But he made clear that ministers anticipate the subject being raised by backbench MPs.

The Department of Health said over the weekend that the Government had no plans at present to legislate on the issue, which was a matter of individual conscience for MPs and could only be decided by Parliament.

Since new guidelines for prosecutors in assisted suicide cases were brought in in February 2010, anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges.

Mr Cameron's spokesman told a daily media briefing in Westminster: "There has obviously been some debate over the course of the last week. The Nicklinson family case has raised some very profound moral and ethical issues.

"I think there are very strong arguments on both sides of the debate and it is an issue that no doubt will be debated further in future. It is an issue for Parliament to decide, and obviously it is an issue of conscience."

Asked whether the Government would make time available for a debate, the spokesman said: "I don't think we have any plans, but there are a number of ways in which politicians can bring about a debate in the House.

"This is one of those issues which is likely to be subject to further debate in the coming weeks and months."

The comments made by the two health ministers were dismissed as "rather superficial" by Tory MP Julian Lewis, who demanded to know whether there had been a shift in Government policy.

Raising a point of order with Commons Speaker John Bercow, he said: "The complex and sensitive issue of assisted suicide is one which thoughtful people on both sides of the argument, on both sides of the House, take very seriously."

He asked Mr Bercow: "Have you had any indication that a Government minister will be coming forward to make a statement as to whether or not the rather superficial comments attributed in the media over the weekend to two junior health ministers represents any change in Government policy on this important issue?"

The Speaker said there were no plans for a statement but Mr Lewis could take up the issue with the Backbench Business Committee if he wanted a debate.