8th October 2020

Minister for suicide won’t solve mental health crisis

6th November, 2018

Anne Payne

As the mental health crisis worsens, the focus should be on helping people at the earliest opportunity, instead of waiting until things get so bad that they are prepared to end their life.

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 month it prompted the government to announce the appointment of the UK’s first-ever Minister for Suicide Prevention.

Although this might seem like a good idea, 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.

Unlike physical health issues, which often self-correct with time and rest, mental health issues typically become more entrenched and harder to treat the longer someone is left unsupported. For example, an acute stress issue can all too easily evolve into feelings of low mood, then bouts of depression, giving way to one-off absences, then feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Even then, most employers will continue to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach and hope the employee recovers of their own accord when, as evidenced by the 91 million absence days generated due to mental health issues each year, most people are woefully undereducated in resilience tools and techniques and require some kind of support or intervention to get better. The simple fact is that mental health issues are like windscreen chips: sometimes you can drive around for a while before a crack appears, but for the most part they need a quick repair if they’re not to splinter into something worse.

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 typically have to wait over two months to access mental health support services, and that these services are being watered down to include inconsistent group therapy, instead of high quality one-to-one counselling, 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.

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.

How to support people in emotional distress

1. Train managers to spot warning signs

Ensure managers are equipped to notice when someone is entering into an emotional crisis by training them to recognise the following warning signs:

-      becoming anxious, irritable or confrontational

-      having mood swings

-      acting recklessly

-      experiencing sleep issues

-      having more problems than usual with their work

-      saying negative things about themselves


Managers should be reminded that it’s not their role 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, to make them feel supported and direct them towards any support service in place.

2. Signpost towards appropriate support

Depending on the underlying issues affecting the employee, they might need to talk to a financial, legal or debt expert, get help with childcare or eldercare issues, or talk to an emotional counsellor about something causing them emotional distress. A good Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can be used to ‘triage’ employees and determine if they just need practical support, access to telephone or face-to-face counselling, or, if the problem is more serious, the need for further therapy flagged up.

If there is no EAP in place, managers will need to be told where else they can direct employees in distress, be this HR or a charity helpline. If they don’t know what to say to help them they won’t want to get involved for fear of having to take on board responsibility for solving the individual’s problems themselves.

3. Help people to stay healthy in the first place

Even better than nipping problems in the bud, is helping employees to stay healthy by training them how to increase their resilience and ability to stay healthy under pressure. By educating and empowering them to recognise the importance of sustaining a strong support network, eating and sleeping well, talking about their feelings and doing activities that bring them joy, you can increase the ability of your workforce to recover from the distressing life events that can affect us all from time to time.

Anne Payne

Anne Payne is co-founder of the mental health and employee wellbeing consultancy Validium. She works with senior HR and OH professionals to help them boost the resilience of their workforce and put in place support processes to help those already affected by mental health issues to recover.

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