House of Commons Library

Suicide Prevention: Policy and Strategy

Published Monday, February 5, 2018

This House of Commons Library briefing paper examines suicide prevention policies and strategies throughout the UK. It outlines national and local approaches to prevention policy in England, as well as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It does so by considering the strategies of the UK Government, as well as the devolved administrations, through the lens of various policy perspectives.

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Suicide prevention policy in the UK has, in recent decades, developed and expanded considerably as concerns around suicide rates have intensified. In England it has, since September 2012, taken the form of an integrated Government strategy – Preventing Suicide in England: a cross-government outcomes strategy to save lives – whose aim, principally, is to prevent people from taking their own lives.  Since 2017 it has included a commitment to reduce the rate of suicides by 10% in 2020/21 nationally, as compared to 2016/17 levels. 

This builds on the previous Government strategy, which was led by the Department of Health and was established by the Labour Government in 2002. More than this earlier initiative, however, the current iteration of the Strategy operates deliberately and explicitly at a cross-Government level which involves a variety of different, albeit overlapping, policy areas.  These include health, as well as transport, social security, education, defence, media, and justice policy briefs.

This briefing paper begins with a statistical overview of suicide rates throughout the UK over time, using the latest data from the Office of National Statistics, which were published in September 2017.   These show that in Great Britain in 2016 there were 5,668 recorded suicides which represented a slight fall since 2015 and the lowest overall number since 2010.  The 2016 suicide data for Northern Ireland has not yet been published.

Section two provides an overview of suicide prevention policies and strategies in the UK, as well as their various updates; the latest of which from the UK Government is the Third Progress report, published in January 2017.  Section three considers national and local oversight of suicide prevention measures, including the two reports produced by the House of Commons Health Select Committee as a result of its Suicide Prevention Inquiry which took place during 2016-2017.  

Given the cross-Government nature of the UK Government’s Strategy, which is also, to varying degrees, a feature of strategies developed by the devolved administrations, this briefing paper then proceeds to a consideration of each of the policy areas upon which suicide prevention plans touch individually, taking each in turn. These are:

  • Health services – with details of suicide prevention measures in the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health (published in 2016), local suicide prevention plans, and NHS support for high risk groups;
  • Education – setting out suicide prevention measures taken by educational institutions, including schools and the mental health services they provide, as well as further and higher education institutions which have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to support their students, including those with mental illness conditions;
  • Employment and social security – outlining support for keeping people in work who suffer from mental health problems, benefit claimants with mental health problems, training and guidance for DWP staff, and risks in ESA and PIP assessments;
  • Railways – detailing suicide prevention measures undertaken by the British Transport Police (BTP), as well as the suicide prevention partnership between Samaritans, BTP, Network Rail, and other parts of the rail industry;
  • Prisons – including current prison service policy and health services for prisoners, as well as Government policy to prevent suicide in prisons;
  • Media – outlining issues connected to the reporting of suicide, as well as the internet and social media, and measures to mitigate their perceived negative effects on suicide rates, including the Government’s recent Internet Safety Strategy, for which a Green Paper was published on 11 October 2017;
  • The armed forces – providing information on suicide in the UK regular armed forces, the new Ministry of Defence Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy (launched in July 2017), as well as concerns around suicide among veterans; and
  • Coroners’ conclusions – which examines problems identified with the accuracy of suicide data, namely in the way coroners return a conclusion of suicide – the standard for which is the criminal standard of proof, i.e. “beyond reasonable doubt”. Some have claimed that this has resulted in the number of suicides to be underestimated in official ONS data.

While this paper focuses heavily on policies relating to England – which are under the jurisdiction of the UK Government – it also considers suicide prevention strategies developed and implemented by the governments of Scotland and Wales, as well as the Northern Ireland Executive. Policies from each strategy, as well as those pertaining to separate institutions or systems in the constituent nations of the UK, are considered in the sections covering the policy areas mentioned above when they relate to devolved matters. 

The current or latest iterations of each suicide prevention plan from the devolved administrations are:

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8221

Authors: Andrew Mackley; Elizabeth Parkin; Carl Baker; David Foster; Steven Kennedy; Douglas Pyper; Louise Butcher; Jack Dent; Louisa Brooke-Holland

Topics: Armed forces, Benefits policy, Civil law, Criminal law, Employment, Employment schemes, Further education, Health services, Higher education, Local government, Media, Prisons, Railways, Schools, Sickness, disability and carers' benefits, Students, Working age benefits

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