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Pioneering suicide strategy can save lives here, says health boss

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 11/11/2015

Ambitious: Joe Rafferty
Ambitious: Joe Rafferty

A Northern Ireland man behind an ambitious 'zero suicides strategy' in England has spoken about how he believes the plan can be introduced here to help save countless lives.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Joe Rafferty, the chief executive from Mersey Care Trust, said he is determined to stop deaths by suicide within his own Trust area in Liverpool by 2020.

Today the Portadown man flies back to Belfast and will tell experts at a major mental health conference the radical strategy - the first in the UK - could be achieved in Northern Ireland.

However, he said there needs to be the "political will" for change to be introduced and stop the 300 lives being lost to suicide every year in the Province.

"It's enormously ambitious," he said. "Some people say it is impossible but I remember in my early career 15 years ago people saying it was impossible to reduce the mortality rate linked to deaths with open heart surgery and actually we have seen those reduce."

The 53-year-old admitted when he first told his team last year what he planned to do within five years there was a lot of apprehension as to whether it would work.

"There were a lot of people looking at each other thinking 'our chief executive has gone mad today'," he said.

"One of the things we asked staff was to try and answer this question; what was the number of suicides they thought was ok to have in the trust?

"If the number isn't zero, then what is the right number? When you think about it there is only one answer."

Part of the strategy was a new 'Safe from Suicide' team who would make sure particular types of medication needed are provided rapidly, and provide social support. The UK strategy was inspired by work in Detroit in the US.

The successful Henry Ford health care system reduced suicide rates from 89 per 100,000 mental health patients in 2001 to 16 per 100,000 when data was last collected in 2013. This compares with a US national average of 230 per 100,000 mental health patients.

The former Queen's University student, who previously worked in cancer research, said: "Our philosophy when we reviewed lots of incidents of suicides of patients was that we sometimes see the same things have happened.

"We noticed people seek services, try to ring us and we haven't got there quickly enough, we haven't changed their medication quickly enough, maybe that we haven't given them access to talking therapies as quickly as we should have.."

Suicide has a greater effect on Northern Ireland than any other region of the UK. In 2014 there were 268 deaths registered as suicide in Northern Ireland, compared to 303 registrations in 2013. In addition, males were three times more likely to die from suicide than females.

A total of 3,288 suicides were registered in Northern Ireland from the beginning of 1998 to the end of 2012. "There are about 250 to 300 people who die by suicide in Northern Ireland every year - that is over the last 10 years annually," he said.

Today's fifth annual Contact Suicide Prevention Conference at the Titanic Conference Centre Belfast will also include a debate on the future of the regional lifeline service. The Public Health Agency's proposals for the future of the helpline and support service are currently out for public consultation.

• If you are affected by suicide or need support, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 or Samaritans on 028 9066 4422.

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