Warning: this story discusses suicide and self-harmand may be upsetting to some readers
Samantha Lovell remembers the last time she spoke to her brother Chris.
‘I asked him before, “You won’t do anything stupid?”,’ she says. ‘He told me “No, of course not. I wouldn’t do anything stupid”. The last message I sent him said “Are you alright Chris?” He said, “I’ll survive Sam”.’
The dad-of-two, who worked as a paramedic, died in hospital on July 25 after taking his own life aged 35.
Sam says there were no signs her brother, who was the ‘life and soul of the party’, wanted to kill himself.
‘I knew Chris was in a bad place but you never think someone’s going to do that,’ she explains. ‘I really struggle with the reality of it. I’ll feel numb and then all of a sudden it hits me and I just break down.
‘It’s like I’m hearing the news all over again. It’s broken my entire family. We will never be the same.
‘We think what he did wasn’t premeditated and was linked to a number of personal things he was going through.
What the Samaritans say:
Suicide is a difficult subject to talk about, but one of the critical ways of preventing suicide is to encourage someone who is struggling to talk about their suicidal feelings.
Suicidal thoughts are often temporary and can be interrupted.
The terms we use to talk about suicide are important as inappropriate use of language can cause distress to those bereaved by suicide or those with lived experience of suicidal thoughts. Instead of ‘commit suicide’, use ‘took their own life’ and rather than ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘failed suicide attempt’, use ‘suicide attempt’.
Suicide is extremely complex and seldom the result of a single factor so it’s important that we don’t oversimplify the reasons why somebody has taken their own life.
Talking can be life-saving – whether it’s with a family member, friend or a confidential helpline like Samaritans. Our volunteers are always there to listen and they won’t judge or tell you what to do.
‘But he was autistic and had his routine ripped away, with all his certainties gone. He didn’t kill himself because of lockdown, but lockdown didn’t help.’
Suicide is complex and rarely linked to only one factor, but when England was first put under harsh restrictions in March 2020, there were concerns the pandemic could lead to a spike in suicide rates.
Provisional data suggests this isn’t the case, with some 4,902 suicides registered last year – giving a provisional rate of 9.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Office for National Statistics.
This is a fall from 2019, when the rate was 10.8 suicide deaths per 100,000 people – although the ONS has warned the drop ‘most likely reflects delays to coroner inquests, because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as opposed to a genuine decrease in suicide’.
In April 2021, a study from the University of Manchester looked at real-time surveillance, covering a population of around nine million and comparing the months pre-lockdown (January-March 2020) to post-lockdown (April-August 2020).
The average number of suspected suicides per month varied, but researchers still found no rise. The same appears to be true of self-harm rates.
However, evidence is still unfolding and we do not have the full picture yet, the Samaritans say.
‘Until we have a comprehensive set of figures, we cannot know the full impact of the pandemic on suicide rates,’ Head of Research and Evaluation Dr Elizabeth Scowcroft explains.
While information continues to emerge, the charity has concerns the pandemic is exacerbating risk factors – mainly those around unemployment and unmanageable debt.
The country has been plunged into the largest recession on record and more than 813,000 workers have lost their jobs. Meanwhile, 10 million are forecast to seek help for their mental health and crisis helplines have seen a surge in calls, among other distressing statistics.
On Mental Health Awareness Week, experts are sending a clear message: Suicide is not an inevitable knock-on effect of the pandemic, but we can never be complacent about prevention, which must be at the heart of recovery plans.
Suicide rates are not just figures, and ‘represent real lives lost, real families devastated and no suicide rate, whether high or low, rising or falling, is acceptable,’ writes Professor Louis Appleby, who leads the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, for the BMJ.
‘My message to someone thinking about taking their own life is, talk to people, get help, do anything you can to stop yourself from doing that,’ she says. ‘You think people are better off without you, that’s not true at all.’
While data is still emerging about the impact of coronavirus, the Mental Health Foundation says ‘we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat’.
Dr David Crepaz-Keay, Head of Empowerment and Social Inclusion, warns research suggests certain groups have had their mental health disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
‘It’s had quite a serious effect on young adults,’ he says. ‘Also those who experienced mental health issues before the pandemic, people with long-term, disabling physical health conditions and people on lower incomes, among others.
‘We know people from some ethnic minorities have been particularly poorly impacted but what we don’t know is how much that is tied to the fact they are more likely to be poor, in poor housing and less likely to be in secure employment.’
While there is no data available for the past year, researchers say it’s possible some demographic groups or geographical areas could require a closer focus when it comes to mitigating risk factors linked to suicide.
ExcludedUK – a group advocating for the estimated three million taxpayers denied Government financial aid – says many members have been left in fear of losing, or have lost, their homes and businesses since March 2020, while others have struggled to cope with mounting debt.
Thousands are struggling to put food on the table, while many have experienced depression or other forms of poor mental health and struggled to get timely help from an overwhelmed NHS, the group adds.
ExcludedUK director for member welfare Jennifer Griffiths knows of 19 members who have taken their own lives over the past year, while 14% of the community has experienced suicidal thoughts.
‘One of my close friends took her own life. She had no history of mental health problems, she radioed positivity everywhere she went,’ she says.
‘She was laughing with me before she died, saying she had all these bills coming in and £25 left in the bank.
‘I asked if she wanted me to put money in her account, she laughed and said “no, if I haven’t got it, they can’t have it”. Ten days later, she took her own life.
‘She left a note basically saying “if the Government thinks I’m not worth investing in to keep me ticking over, I’m not borrowing money off my friends. I feel helpless and worthless”. We don’t know what pushed her over the edge.’
Suicide is seldom the result of only one factor, but past research has shown people who are unemployed are two to three times more likely to take their own lives than those in employment, and that there is an established link between recession and suicide.
ExcludedUK now offers a selection of help for those struggling, including counselling sessions, Mental Health First Aiders and members trained specifically in suicide prevention.
‘We had a lady who put a note on Facebook to say please could someone pick up her dogs because she couldn’t afford to keep them. The only thing she had was dog food she shared with her pets. She didn’t want to be here anymore,’ says Jennifer.
‘Thanks to the quick work of our team, I was able to contact her. We had a long chat, I put some money in her account, we gave her some Zoom sessions – now she’s fighting fit and looking forward to the future.’
While suicide rates do not seem to have increased during the pandemic, some ambulance trusts appear to have seen a rise in ‘suicide or psychiatric-related calls’.
Freedom of Information data released to Metro.co.uk reveals the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust received 22,462 calls where callers may have referenced suicide, attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts in some way in 2020. This compares with 18,680 in 2019.
Other trusts have reported drops, with East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust coding 19,033 calls as ‘Psychiatric’/[suspected] suicide’ in 2019, compared to 16,571 in 2020.
Both pieces of data should be treated with caution as they are based on initial information given to the trust and may not reflect the true circumstances or final verdict of a coroner.
A paramedic, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims to have witnessed a clear rise in call-outs related to mental health over the past year, although she says she hasn’t seen a rise in suspected suicides.
’People have struggled not seeing family and friends, not being able to have their normal coping mechanisms, and that’s upsetting for people who have diagnosed mental health problems,’ she says. ‘Then, on top of that, you’ve got the people who haven’t had any mental health problems before.
‘Then, people have lost their jobs, family members have died, and they’re struggling to cope with that. The elderly population is isolated and not seeing family. So we’ve seen a knock-on effect.’
While there is concern about risk factors, there is always help for those who need it, the Samaritans have reminded the public.
Mum-of-two Allie, 31, says she realised she needed support after trying to take her own life in September last year.
‘I couldn’t have told you why I was sad,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t have even told you why I was going to do it. There was just something in me that thought it was going to be the solution to all of my problems.
‘When I did what I did, in a split second from that moment, I didn’t want to die. It didn’t fulfil what I thought it was going to do. From that point, I realised, “I’m in a lot deeper than I thought I was”.’
After facing a six-to-eight-week wait for NHS talking therapy, and a three-week wait for counselling through work, Allie turned to charities for immediate support.
‘You want to know exactly when you’re going to speak to somebody,’ she says. ‘When I was at my lowest and feeling like I wanted to self-harm, the Samaritans were brilliant. They talk you through it, they’re there.
‘I also remember one of the ladies from Mind saying, “I’m not in work today, but I’ll give you a quick call back”. And I thought, “that’s brilliant”. You’re there thinking the world’s going to fall down, and somebody is there to help.’
Allie struggled with the lack of face-to-face medical help as the public was told to stay home during lockdown, and searched to find ways to cope.
‘My coping mechanisms tended to be negative ones. So they would be self-harm, spending all day in bed and just feeling really bad,’ she explains. ‘They now fall into a lot of walking. Anything to do with being outdoors.
‘I wouldn’t say my mental health is totally back to normal but I definitely feel a lot better. Time is one of the biggest healers.’
In June 2020, ministers allocated funding of £57 million for suicide prevention work up to 2023/24. The Government recently announced a £500 million Covid-19 Mental Health and Wellbeing Recovery Action Plan – including £5 million available to support suicide prevention voluntary and community sector organisations from 2021 to 2022, and £15 million for the most deprived local authority areas to focus on preventing mental ill-health.
Charities have welcomed the support, although Mind previously warned the Government is playing catch-up with funding for mental health services, with the real cost of recovering from the pandemic estimated at more than £1 billion a year for the next three years.
Experts have urged the Government to put more focus on cross-governmental co-operation in order to embed suicide prevention in every area of society.
‘With two-thirds of people who die by suicide not in touch with mental health services in the year before their death, we need bold action,’ a Samaritans spokesperson said. ‘The fact remains that the Government’s target, to reduce suicide by 10% nationally by the end of this year, will not be met.
‘Even before the pandemic, the latest data showed a concerning increase in the overall suicide rate, starting in 2018 and reversing this trend requires action beyond a one-year investment.
‘The pressures from the pandemic are likely to continue for some time. Therefore, suicide prevention should be embedded at the outset in the ways that the Government tackles issues like unemployment and debt in order to create practical means of supporting vulnerable individuals at every opportunity.’
They added: ‘Samaritans wants to see support for the most high-risk groups, such as middle-aged men on low incomes, who are more likely to be negatively affected by an economic downturn.’
The public also has a huge role to play in suicide prevention, say experts and those impacted.
‘If someone told me they were suicidal, I would tell them to talk to the first person that comes past them,’ says Allie. ‘Talk to anybody and just say the words “I want to die today”. It might feel like nobody cares but there is not one human in the world who wouldn’t talk to you.’
Dr Crepaz-Keay adds: ‘If you are worried about somebody’s mental health, talk to them. One of the few things that has come out as positive over the last year is there has been much more of a focus on mental health and more people feel able to talk about it.
‘If you think someone may be isolated, lonely or struggling, make that phone call, send that email, connect in whatever way you can. It could make a huge difference for someone.’
What the Government says:
Minister for Mental Health, Nadine Dorries, said: ‘I am absolutely committed to supporting positive mental health and wellbeing for all.
‘Our Mental Health Recovery Action plan is backed up by £500 million and specifically targets individuals who have been most impacted by the pandemic, including those with severe mental illness, young people, and frontline staff.
‘This targeted funding is on top of our commitment to invest £2.3 billion per year into mental health services by 2023/24 – the largest increase in mental health funding in NHS history.’
A Treasury spokesperson said: ‘It’s very upsetting to hear of anyone taking their own life and our sympathies are with families and friends that are grieving.
‘The Government has done all it can to help as many people as possible during the pandemic, by providing support worth over £280 billion.
‘Those not eligible for support through these schemes can still benefit from our strengthened welfare safety net, accessing help like Universal Credit.’
Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover
This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.
With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.
If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:
To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here
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