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Minister for suicide isn't the answer to the mental health crisis

By the time someone is prepared to take their own life several opportunities to support them have already been missed

Twelve people will die across England today as a result of taking their own life – that’s one person every two hours, 4,500 people a year. With 25 times as many people feeling suicidal but not acting on their feelings.

The scale of the problem, which makes suicide the leading cause of death for young people aged 20- to 34-years-old, has now become so serious that last week it prompted the government to announce the appointment of the UK’s first-ever minister for suicide.

On the face of it this would appear to be a good thing. But the news has been met with dismay by counsellors, who are concerned that by the time someone is prepared to end their own life several opportunities to support them have already been missed.

As evidenced by the 91 million absence days generated because of mental health issues each year, most people lack the resilience tools and techniques needed to improve their own mental health once they start to sink, and need some kind of support or intervention to get better. Mental health issues are like windscreen chips: sometimes you can drive around for a while before a crack appears but, for the most part, if you do nothing it will just get worse until everything shatters.

All of which means it would be far better to have a minister for mental health, focused on encouraging everyone to seek support at the earliest opportunity, than a minister for suicide prevention focused on fixing those who are now experiencing so much emotional pain they no longer want to live.

Given that GP and NHS waiting times mean that even people who are trying to get support will have to wait at least six weeks to access a counsellor, employers who are serious about reducing the risk of suicide within their workplace must now become much more active about identifying and supporting people in emotional distress. Before they even get to the stage where they need emotional counselling or treatments such as CBT to recover.

Not only will this help to identify and support people who are potentially feeling suicidal, but it will also reduce the number of people getting to that stage, or anything like that stage, in the first place.

So how should employers support people in emotional distress?

1. Don’t adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach. Unlike physical health issues, which typically self-correct with time and rest, mental health issues often become more entrenched and difficult to treat the longer someone is left unsupported. If someone is exhibiting the symptoms of emotional distress, such as being tearful, angry, more forgetful and error prone, or reduced eye contact and social interaction, it’s essential that HR, their manager or a mental health first aider offer a kind enquiry into how they are to understand what’s going on.

2. Direct them towards appropriate support. It is not the role of a manager to attempt to counsel or advise someone in distress as this could do more harm than good. Instead it is their role to listen, without judgement or interruption, and recap on the issues the employee is struggling with so that they can help them to clarify the situation they’re in, make them feel supported and direct them towards appropriate support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), a counselling service, HR or a charity helpline.

3. Act on any alarm bells. Every day people make meaningless threats, saying things like 'my life won’t be worth living if I lose this project'. But if someone has said they want to die or talked about plans to end their life this must be taken seriously. Ensure everyone knows how to support someone who is feeling suicidal, from calling a counsellor via the EAP and handing over the phone for the person to start talking, to driving them to A&E and asking for the crisis team, to calling 999, depending on the level of danger. If the person is trapped in an emotional crisis and not thinking clearly, get them to describe something in detail, such as the room they’re in or how they got to work that morning, to get their rational brain back online while you get help.

Anne Payne is co-founder of employee wellbeing and mental health consultancy Validium