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Topical Issues Debate on safeTALK suicide prevention courses

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this topical issue, particularly as I was unable to contribute on the Private Members’ motion on mental health tabled last week. The tragic death of Gary Speed in England at the weekend highlighted the issue of suicide, as did two recent tragedies in County Kildare in the past two weeks when people took their own lives. Globally, the equivalent of one quarter of the population of Ireland take their own lives each year. Last year, 486 people died by suicide in the Republic. We should bear in mind that for every suicide, at least 20 people attempt to take their own lives. This figure does not take into consideration the number of people who self-harm and may or may not be admitted to accident and emergency units.

The safeTALK training programme is one of the suicide prevention training programmes available through the Health Service Executive’s suicide prevention resource officers and their partner agencies. It is co-ordinated by the National Office of Suicide Prevention, NOSP. According to the NOSP, safeTALK is a half-day training course which prepares participants to identify persons who have thoughts of suicide and connect them to suicide first aid personnel and resources. These specific skills, known as suicide alertness, are taught with the expectation that the person learning them will use them to help reduce suicide risk in their communities.

It is interesting to note that safeTALK is one of a number of suicide prevention programmes which provided training to 3,689 people 2010. This begs the question as to whether a sufficient number of people are being trained in suicide prevention. I am informed that the target ratio for such training is to reach one in eight people. Based on the figures available to me, the ratio achieved here is one in 550 people. We must ensure funding and staff are available to co-ordinate and offer safeTALK to as many people as possible. There are 89 trainers of the programme. In one area, the number of safeTALK trainers has declined from ten to four.

The benefits of the safeTALK course are straightforward. It offers a large number of people a learning process by which they can discover precisely how to recognise individuals who may have thoughts of suicide. Other courses are also available, for example, Reach Out and ASIST, the latter of which is aimed at professionals. In addition, a new dialectical behaviour therapy, DBT, programme is being rolled out. The beauty of the safeTALK course is that it focuses on young people aged from 18 years and upwards. It is widely recognised that the 18 to 26 years age group is the most vulnerable to suicide. The two and a half hour course, which is not time consuming and is not as advanced as the ASIST course, has been internationally recognised, having proved successful in many countries.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch: I thank Deputy Lawlor for raising this issue which, as he will be aware, is close to my heart. The Deputy has also done considerable work on suicide in his locality.

I recognise the importance of the safeTALK suicide prevention course which is one of a number of suicide prevention training programmes available through the Health Service Executive suicide prevention resource officers and partner agencies, including the Defence Forces, National Youth Council of Ireland, national Traveller suicide prevention project and RehabCare. To revert to the topic we discussed a few moments ago, we must be conscious of the need to ensure the safeTALK and ASIST programmes are culturally appropriate.

International and national evidence shows that for suicide prevention training to be effective it needs to be done in a co-ordinated and targeted manner. No single training programme is effective within communities on its own and a higher proportion of community members need to complete suicide awareness training with smaller proportions of health professionals or community gatekeepers completing suicide prevention alertness and skills programmes. The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, recommends and funds the delivery of suicide prevention training programmes across the country, including the safeTALK programme, a half-day training course which trains participants to identify persons with thoughts of suicide and connect them to people and agencies. Training in the programme was provided in 2010 in 199 workshops to some 3,600 people and continued in 2011.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention continues to work with key professional and community group, such as the Garda Síochána, Fire Service and education personnel, to ensure the most appropriate programmes are delivered across these groups. We must seriously consider making participation in the programme a compulsory element of health and safety programmes in all jobs and workplaces. Surely suicide prevention awareness is as important as insisting that employees are taught how to lift heavy items or deal with fires in the workplace. We must start to speak to the whole of government about how to make suicide prevention part and parcel of everyday training.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention is responsible for the implementation of Reach Out, our policy strategy on suicide prevention which outlines the actions that need to be taken to prevent suicide and deliberate self-harm and increase awareness of the importance of good mental health and well-being. Reach Out identified the development of a national training programme as one of the key priorities for the NOSP. Funding for suicide prevention activities is approximately €9 million in 2011. This figure includes the annual budget of €4.1 million for the National Office for Suicide Prevention and €5 million which is used to fund resource officers for suicide prevention, self-harm nurses in accident and emergency departments and the development of local suicide prevention initiatives.

Apart from the development and implementation of the national training programme, a number of suicide prevention initiatives have been progressed in recent years, including the development of mental health awareness campaigns, continued support for voluntary organisations working in the field of suicide prevention and the launch of a “tough economic times” information and training programme for the staff of organisations such as Citizens Information and the Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

I acknowledge that there is a great deal of commitment in many sectors to tackle this serious health and social issue. The Government’s commitment to the development of our mental health services, in line with A Vision for Change and Reach Out, was clearly shown in the programme for Government, which provided for €35 million to be ring-fenced from within the overall health budget each year. This money will be used to develop community mental health services, to ensure early access to more appropriate services for adults and children and to implement Reach Out. This is being considered as part of the Estimates process for 2011 and future years. We must continue to work together to identify people at risk and ensure appropriate services are in place to provide the help and support needed. I have not even dealt with the issue of stigma and the reasons people do not reach out for help.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. I took part in the SafeTALK training programme in the Oireachtas a number of weeks ago. I was the only Deputy to do so, unfortunately. There were some other people there. Another training course is taking place this Thursday. I encourage as many Deputies as possible to take the course. We deal with people who may have suicidal thoughts. We need to be able to recognise if that is the case. We should be in a position to identify that at an early stage. Deputies deal with people who are under pressure for all sorts of reasons. The possibility may exist that some of these people might consider taking their own lives. The last thing a Deputy wants is for someone who has passed through his or her office to decide eventually to take his or her own life because he or she cannot deal with the pressures that exist in this country. I encourage as many Deputies as possible to attend the SafeTALK programme on Thursday. If they are not in a position to do so, perhaps their staff might attend instead.

I welcome the Minister of State’s repeated commitment to ring-fencing the HSE’s mental health budget of €35 million. It is vitally important that we send a signal that we are serious about mental health and that we intend to reduce the number of people who take their own lives each year. I welcome the Minister of State’s comments about the stigma associated with mental health matters. One of the reasons I am in favour of the SafeTALK course is that it ensures as many people as possible in the community are aware of the problem of suicide. If more people talk about and highlight this problem, it will surely be prevented in the future. We need to send a serious signal that we are determined to reduce the scourge of suicide in our communities.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch: I thank the Deputy. I agree with him that we need to talk about this matter every time we get an opportunity to do so. It is no longer a hidden subject. We have to get rid of the taboo that surrounds it. We need to start breaking the silence that is causing the stigma, which in turn is preventing people from reaching out for help. When people decide to reach out, we need to be able to point them in the direction of the help that is offered by those who have been trained in programmes like ASIST and SafeTALK. Sometimes we have to provide that help ourselves. I thank the Deputy again. The more we can talk about this matter, the better.

ENDS