Hospitals are wrong to treat suicide attempts as just a medical emergencyby Anna Blundy / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
A Samaritans support sign on Beachy Head, near Eastbourne; others are placed at railway tracks, bridges and buildings across the country
Suicides are startlingly common. Over 5000 are reported in the UK every year, according to the Office for National Statistics—more than double the number of people killed in road traffic accidents. Governments across the world rightly see prevention of suicidal behaviour as an important healthcare target. This autumn has seen World Suicide Prevention Day, international conferences in both Israel and Norway (contrary to popular belief Norway, Sweden and Denmark’s suicide rates are low), the publication of the British government’s prevention strategy report and a study from the Samaritans on the demographics of suicide, which confounded common perceptions of who is most at risk.
In Britain, suicide is dealt with as a medical emergency. This means those who feel they are an immediate risk to themselves—if they check into a hospital’s accident and emergency department (A&E)—will be treated swiftly and often effectively. But the aim is short term: to stop the patient from committing suicide on that particular day.
The problem is that the National Health Service (NHS) often fails to treat the mental health issues that lie behind the patient’s suicidal feelings. If the patient cannot easily describe the illness, practitioners and patients are paralysed; the focus will be on preventing the suicide attempt but may fail to result in long term treatment.
The first challenge is how to encourage suicidal people to ask for the help they need and, once they do, how to assess the risk compassionately. The initial port of call for someone seeking urgent help in Britain is likely to be the NHS Choices website, which advises the suicidal to call the Samaritans or NHS Direct, or to go to their GP or accident and emergency, and talk about how they are feeling. Good advice in theory but, in reality, the hopelessness of suicidal feelings may well prevent those most in need from following it.
For many, treatment comes only in the aftermath of a suicide attempt or an episode of severe self-harm. But it may be a struggle for them to get proper help even then. Stories about patients being “sectioned”—detained at hospital—against their will under the Mental Health Act are commonplace. The experience of patients who have to fight to convince hospital staff that…