Suicide prevention should be a “priority public health issue” for Scotland in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, ministers have been told.
A new report from the National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group (NSPLG) says this is “critical” as it warns the impact of the crisis will be felt on mental health and well-being “for some time to come”.
The group cites anecdotal evidence in the UK of more people struggling with their mental health and thinking about suicide, saying this is seen “through police call-outs and crisis helplines, as individuals turn to remote support where social support is currently unavailable”.
There has also been an increase in calls to the mental health advice line Breathing Space, the report says.
It warns: “While data on suicide rates during the pandemic is not yet available, the adverse effects on people with mental illness and on population mental health in general, are likely to be exacerbated by fear, self-isolation and physical distancing.”
There were 784 suicides in Scotland in 2018 – up from 680 the previous year.
The report is clear “suicide prevention is and should continue to be an integral part of Scotland’s Covid-19 pandemic public health response and recovery phases”.
As part of this, the group is calling on the Scottish Government to undertake enhanced monitoring of statistics on suicide and self-harm to identify emerging trends and groups at risk, to enable early preventative action.
Ministers are also being urged to consider setting up a specific public suicide prevention campaign, distinct from the Clear Your Head mental health campaign launched during the coronavirus crisis.
A separate campaign is needed to “encourage people at risk of suicide and in suicidal crisis to seek help without stigma”, the NSPLG says.
Another recommendation is for a greater focus on “specifically suicidal crisis intervention – to ensure that those in suicidal crisis can access timely help and support, and meet any increase in numbers”.
The report also urges ministers to act to restrict access to the most commonly used means of suicide.
The report states: “As Scotland faces the extraordinary challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic it is clear that these are difficult and uncertain times for many people and it is highly likely the impacts of the pandemic on individual mental health and well-being will be felt for some time to come.
“There is global concern that the Covid-19 pandemic may increase suicide rates.
“Studies of past epidemics support an association between previous infectious disease-related public health emergencies and increased risk of suicide, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
“It is therefore critical that suicide prevention is a priority public health issue for Scotland which is integral to government planning now, confidently built on the best evidence of what works to save lives.”
The report also recommends a longer-term, potentially 10-year, suicide prevention strategy for Scotland be drawn up, building on the current Suicide Prevention Action Plan.
This could consider “the wider links between suicide and inequalities, deprivation, social security, employment, criminal justice/prisons, the relationship between suicide and self-harm; and the stigma which still surrounds suicide”, the NSPLG said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said ministers will consider the recommendations “carefully”.
He added: “Mental health and well-being are a top priority for the Scottish Government and we want everyone to have access to appropriate support.
“That’s why we’ve provided £6 million in additional funding during the pandemic to support the NHS24 and Breathing Space telephone helplines, as well as the Clear Your Head campaign, which has practical resources to help people proactively manage their mental health.
“Public Health Scotland and NHS 24 are already working closely with NSPLG to monitor suicide and self-harm data, and we will continue to work with partners in the sector on mental health and well-being campaigns targeted at well-being, stigma and suicide prevention.”