ST Helens is no longer the nation’s suicide capital, but should we really be celebrating?
This was after a spike in suicides in 2016 and 2017, the reason of which is still largely unexplained.
Following this, St Helens Council and its partners came together with the aim of reducing the number of suicides to zero.
Last year 17 people died from suicide in St Helens, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
While significantly lower than the 29 suicides in both 2017 and 2016, the borough’s suicide rate of 16.1, based on suicides per 100,000 population was still the fifth highest in England and Wales.
But it is moving in the right direction.
This is believed to be in part due to a big push from public health around engagement and awareness training, with the help of Zero Suicide Alliance.
But it is also thanks to the community groups who came forward offering help.
Sue Forster, St Helens Council’s director of public health, said: “Everybody started saying, well what can I do in my world to help?
“And it was everybody taking a responsibility.
“It was quite good beforehand, and I felt that helped with the 2018 data but now it’s in everybody’s consciousness that suicide is something everybody can do something about.”
Ms Forster told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that all of the current indications show the downward trend is continuing.
Up until March 2019, St Helens’ suicide rate dropped to 14.9, although this is unverified.
“It’s really positive in terms of the downwards trend,” Ms Forster said.
“However, I still think we have a cohort of people in our community who feel that suicide is still an option.
“A lack of hope for life really.”
Labour’s Anthony Burns, cabinet member for public health, libraries and leisure, also aired caution about celebrating the fall in suicides.
Cllr Burns said: “What I’m a little bit concerned about is, even though the stats are really good, we’ve had three recently within a number of weeks.
“So, us banging the drum saying, ‘isn’t it brilliant, the stats have gone down’, is little comfort to them three families who are going through what they’re going through.”
Most of the people who took their lives in 2018 in St Helens were men, mirroring the national picture.
The vast majority were also unemployed.
Cllr Burns said: “If you think about some of these individuals that are struggling, it’s no real surprise that you’d see St Helens at the top of the list because of what people are going through.
“There’s a lack of hope, high levels of unemployment, especially around fellas that are going through this, who are struggling to provide for their family afterwards and the effects of austerity.”
There are a number of protective factors that can prevent someone from taking their lives, such as children, being employed or simply having something valuable to do.
For men, a break-up in their relationship can leave them particularly vulnerable.
Ms Forster said: “The difference between men and women – and I don’t want to make this a male or female thing – is women often have very good social networks where they will disclose those things.
“If you look at the evidence, men often use their partner to disclose that.
“So, if they lose their partner for whatever reason, then they become more vulnerable.”
Public health believe there are a large number of men in St Helens who have undiagnosed depression.
To help address this, funding has been secured to launch future initiatives that will focus specifically on men in the community.
Some of these initiatives, Ms Forster said, will link in with sports, which are viewed as an “in-road” to men.
In recent years there has been much awareness raising done nationally regarding the importance of discussing mental health.
However, Cllr Burns believes men in St Helens are still choosing to keep things to themselves.
“Traditionally as a people we don’t talk,” Cllr Burns said.
“You think about going back to our fathers’ generations, we’re not a talking town about issues.”
He added: “Back in the day before all these things had names, it was ‘oh there’s the local nutter’ or whatever.
“You just had to get on with it. You couldn’t talk about it.
“You go back a generation to all the men working down the pit, going through all the stresses and strains of having to provide for their family or maybe a pit disaster.
“They really struggled back then. They had nobody to talk to, they just got on with it.
“It’s a society issue isn’t it and I think everybody needs to change their view on mental health.”
A modern problem believed to be a factor in having a detrimental effect on people’s mental health is the use of digital technologies.
The social media giants have faced increasing criticism about how it handles harmful content on its sites.
Despite the obvious dangers, Ms Forster believes digital technologies can still be a force for good.
Ms Forster said: “In St Helens, social media is exactly the same as it is everywhere else.
“We know there is an impact of social media on children and young people.
“However, for all the negative impacts of social media in relation to bullying, there are lots of positive impacts in terms of being able to get information.
“Often young people will not go to a trusted adult for that information and actually search that out in the internet.”
One issue that is prevalent among teenagers in St Helens is self-harm, particularly among teenage girls.
While still high this is also declining, which Ms Forster believes is due to the awareness work the council and its partners has carried out in recent times.
Nationally, self-harm has gradually risen across the UK over the last 15 years.
Following the release of the new suicide statistics, the charity Samaritans said the increase in self-harm was a “major concern”.
“Self-harm is a strong risk factor for future suicide among young people,” Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland said.
“Research is urgently needed to understand this increase in self-harm so that effective support services and preventive measures can be developed.
“Self-harm must also be prioritised by governments and plans should equip young people with effective, healthy coping mechanisms and promote help-seeking by reducing stigma around self-harm.”
Ms Forster agrees with the Samaritans, calling suicide the “ultimate self-harm”.
To coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, today St Helens Council is launching its ‘Ok to Ask’ campaign, which aims to break down the stigma of talking about suicide.
The campaign has been developed collaboratively with The St Helens Suicide Prevention Task Group with the support of families in St Helens affected by suicide, through St Helens Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Group.
The awareness campaign simply calls on the community to ask someone going through a difficult period in their lives: “are you thinking about suicide?”.
Ms Forster said: “At the moment where we are is about identifying people at high risk so that we can actually do something positive for them.
“Because people will think they have no hope and you can actually turn that around by just asking the question and they can move into seeing there is something positive of them to do.
“There are lots of people out there, people who are famous who’ve tried to take their lives but gone on to do really positive things in their lives.
“Even though they might always struggle emotionally with their wellbeing.”
The ‘Ok to Ask’ campaign will launch alongside a new website, oktoaskcampaign.co.uk, which aims to provide helpful information regarding suicide and mental health.
Looking ahead, Ms Forster said more prevention and resilience work is needed.
She admitted the potential impact of Brexit on the borough is a concern for public health.
Ms Forster said: “If you look at the data, over half are unemployed so that’s a big factor.
“That’s not saying they definitely took their life because they’re unemployed but it’s a risk factor probably with a few others.
“The fact is, if that happens and more people in the community lose their jobs, that increases the risk.
“So undoubtedly, that’s a worry.”
Cllr Burns believes the uncertainty around Brexit is already having damaging effects on people’s wellbeing.
He said: “If you’re looking at the national picture thinking, what’s happening? Are we coming out of Europe? Are we going to be able to feed ourselves? Are we going to be able to travel?
“All of this uncertainty around Brexit. You see the mess that’s happening in Parliament and these are the people who are leading the country.
“And then the negativity as well, there’s so much negativity around with everything.
“It just creates the perfect storm for these things to happen, unfortunately.”
Whatever the future holds, Cllr Burns believes it is vital everybody pulls together.
Cllr Burns: “We’ve got to encourage people to take ownership.
“We’ve got to work with organisations such as the Chamber who have over 1,000 members who can get that message out there.
“We’ve got to work with partners, whether it’s the police, fire or ambulance to get that message out there.
“And also, the churches, the faith groups and the sports clubs.
“There’s that many different people doing things and I think that’s how we filter it all through.”