House of Commons Library

Suicide Prevention: Policy and Strategy

Published Thursday, October 10, 2019

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, from 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 cross-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 2016 it has included a commitment to reduce the rate of suicides in England by 10% by 2020/21, which the Government will measure against the rate of registered suicides in 2015. 

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 the transport, social security, education, defence, media, and justice policy briefs.

Suicide rates

Section one of this briefing paper provides a statistical overview of suicide rates throughout the UK over time, using the latest data published by the Office of National Statistics in September 2019.  This shows that in 2018 there were 6,507 recorded suicides in the United Kingdom.  This number of deaths equates to an age-standardised suicide rate of 11.2 deaths per 100,000 population, which is a significant increase on previous years and the highest rate recorded since 2002.  It is also, nevertheless, lower than rates recorded in the 1980s and 1990s.

National suicide prevention strategy

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 Fourth Progress Report and Workplan for its Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, both published in January 2019. 

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. 

Since October 2018, there has been a designated Minister for Suicide Prevention in the Department of Health and Social Care who is responsible for leading “a national effort on suicide prevention”.

Suicide prevention in different policy areas

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 considers 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 and mental health support in the NHS Long Term Plan (published in January 2019) and other NHS England reports. It also covers 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 – outlining policies designed to keep people who suffer from mental health problems in work, including implementation of a Government strategy for support for people with health conditions in the workplace called ‘Improving Lives’, as well as a recent consultation on proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss;
  • Social security – outlining support for benefit claimants with mental health problems, training and guidance for DWP staff, the risks in ESA and PIP assessments, and concerns expressed recently that people with mental health conditions may face certain difficulties or problems when navigating the new Universal Credit system;
  • Transport – detailing suicide prevention measures for railways and roads undertaken by the British Transport Police (BTP) and the Department of Transport, as well as suicide prevention strategies developed by Samaritans, BTP, Network Rail, Highways England, and other parts of the transport sector;
  • Prisons – outlining current prison service policy and health services for prisoners, Government policy to prevent suicide in prisons, as well as concerns about the levels of self-harm and suicides in prisons, and a recent Health and Social Care Committee report on the health of prisoners;
  • Media – outlining issues connected to the reporting of suicide, as well as the role of the internet and social media;
  • 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), concerns around suicide among veterans, as well as a recent Defence Committee inquiry into mental health in the armed forces; and
  • Coroners’ conclusions – explaining that until recently it was considered that the high criminal standard of proof was necessary for a coroner’s conclusion of suicide – namely “beyond all reasonable doubt”. In July 2018, however, the High Court held that cases decided previously did not state the law correctly, and that the lower civil standard of proof – “on the balance of probabilities” – applies for suicide conclusions. The Court of Appeal has upheld this decision; it is understood that permission to appeal to the Supreme Court has been granted.

 

Suicide prevention in the devolved nations

While this paper focuses heavily on policies relating to England – which fall 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:

 

Further general reading

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8221

Authors: Andrew Mackley; Carl Baker; Catherine Fairbairn; Tom Powell; David Foster; Daniel Ferguson; Steven Kennedy; John Woodhouse; Louisa Brooke-Holland; Andrew Haylen; Jacqueline Beard

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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