This article was originally published in The Telegraph, 10/10/2022: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/10/09/focus-suicide-like-major-killer/
My brothers and I were extremely close growing up. The five of us were born within seven years of each other and shared the two-bedroom flat above the family shop in Bristol. We relied on each other and especially on my eldest brother, Tariq. We talked about everything, good and bad: girlfriends, doing badly at exams and who was going to tell dad.
In July 2018, Tariq took his own life. I was home secretary at the time and received the news from my younger brother over the phone. I was stunned. As a family, we simply had not seen it coming. His absence is painful for us all. I often wonder if I could have made a difference and helped him. It is a question I will never know the answer to, and one that always brings feelings of guilt.
The pain we feel in our family is, sadly, far from unique. In 2021 there were more than 5,000 suicides registered in England. Someone dies from suicide in the UK approximately every 90 minutes. I wish I could say the situation is improving, but the trends have broadly been going in the wrong direction for some time.
Today, as we mark World Mental Health Day, we can welcome the progress we’ve made in reducing the stigma. But there is so much more to do, including on suicide prevention. When I served as secretary of state for health and social care, I said that we must treat suicide with the same urgency that we treat any other major killer. Although ministers may have changed, that urgency remains.
To help turn the tide, we need a new 10-year plan on suicide prevention. It should be cross-government, supportive of community organisations, and fit for purpose in the digital age. I made this argument in June during a speech at Papyrus UK, an excellent charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide. The scale of the challenge is huge, particularly in tackling existing disparities.
About three-quarters of deaths by suicide each year are men. Someone is twice as likely to die in the North East by suicide than in London. Men who live in some of the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more at risk of suicide than in affluent areas. We must not shy away from these disparities. The Government is rightly committed to increasing growth and opportunity across the UK, and that has to involve confronting deprivation wherever it is found. A relentless focus on suicide prevention will help individuals and communities alike.
Sadly, some two-thirds of people who take their own life are not in contact with mental-health services. That makes the importance of a cross-government strategy particularly acute. Frontline public-sector employees who work with vulnerable people should have suicide-prevention training. Every interaction is an opportunity to save a life, particularly with the financial pressures people are facing.
The 2012 strategy rightly identified some of these. But it is essential that this updated plan places a greater focus on the online world. There are areas where we have found it harder to keep up with the proliferation of digital content, including pro-suicide and self-harm related material. The harrowing findings of the coroner’s inquest into the death of Molly Russell set this out in heartbreaking detail.
When I was home secretary, I talked about how we cannot allow tech giants to look the other way and deny their share of responsibility for content on their platforms. The Online Safety Bill is an opportunity to tackle this, and it surely cannot be delayed a moment longer. A new suicide-prevention plan should also include detail of how government proposes to create a specific offence that covers those who encourage or assist others to self-harm.
The dark cloud of suicide means that too much potential has gone unfulfilled and too many families have been left incomplete. The work to tackle this must respond to evolving challenges and be fit for the decade ahead. This plan will not be able to help Tariq, but I know it can help save other lives.
The loss of my older brother will always remain a source of pain. But my family have many happy memories of him, especially from the two-bed above the shop. In raising awareness and taking decisive action, the work of civil society and government could not be more important. People’s lives depend on it.