Norman Lamb MP: The Student Mental Health Charter must be enshrined in legislation
"We target zero deaths for a variety of physical health conditions... why shouldn’t we be doing the same for suicide?" Norman Lamb MP asks, on World Mental Health Day.
I am in favour of a totally radical and progressive approach to suicide prevention.
It’s called Zero Suicide, and originated at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Its aim is audacious – the elimination of suicide in inpatient settings.
Edward Coffey, who works at the Henry Ford Health System asked a question: we target zero deaths for a variety of physical health conditions, such as stroke – why shouldn’t we be doing the same for suicide?
That is how the Zero Suicide Pledge came about. The teams in Detroit built up a significant evidence base, which demonstrated that you can dramatically reduce the loss of life through suicide. In just seven years, they had brought the number of suicides down to zero for inpatients at the Henry Ford Health System.
Now the idea has spread across the UK. In 2014, as Care Minister, I, along with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, challenged the NHS to embrace Zero Suicide. Now, due to pioneering work led by Dr Geraldine Strathdee, the former clinical director for mental health at NHS England, Steve Mallen, and Joe Rafferty, Chief Executive of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, around half the NHS mental health trusts have signed up to a zero suicide commitment.
As the idea becomes widespread, we must be careful that it does not just become a tick-box exercise. At the heart of the Zero Suicide pledge is a bold challenge to the organisation – but it has to be matched with the application of an evidence based programme to deliver real results. Where it is implemented properly, it has the potential to be utterly transformative, not only saving lives but also delivering a much greater focus on preventative healthcare and early intervention.
Today is World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is suicide prevention. We need to be thinking seriously about where else we can expand the Zero Suicide commitment, taking the challenge beyond the healthcare system. If we were to get universities to commit to the Zero Suicide pledge, we have the potential to completely transform a sector where too frequently we hear tragic stories of young people who have taken their own lives.
There is currently a crisis in student mental health, and provision is in many cases very poor. I recently gained some insight into the scale of the problem when I conducted a Freedom of Information survey into mental health provision at UK universities. The findings were depressing. Too many universities simply don’t have a handle on the state of their provision. Over a quarter of universities were unable to provide a figure for a specific mental health budget. Shockingly, over 75% were unable to tell us how long students were waiting to see a counsellor in each of the last five years.
Yet others – Cambridge, to name one example – had a total grasp on how they were doing. That’s the only way to begin to improve provision.
Where we did receive data the findings were patchy, to say the least. More than a quarter have cut or failed to increase funding over the last five years. In some cases, students were waiting longer than the length of a university term to see a counsellor. People are being failed by this postcode lottery.
Clearly urgent action needs to be taken. I’m now calling for a Student Mental Health Charter, which would guarantee students the right to a good standard of evidence-based mental health provision and a focus on suicide prevention. The only way to get all universities to improve their services is to make the Charter legally enforceable – either by enshrining it in legislation or by making it a condition of state funding.
And a cornerstone of this Charter would be a commitment to Zero Suicide. This is a new idea – bringing the pledge in from the healthcare system, conducting trials at universities across the country, building up the evidence base and designing a programme which all higher education institutes could adopt. It has huge and significant potential.
This is a positive and radical vision that could make a real difference to students. Yet too many universities do not seem equipped or willing to take on such a challenge. On World Mental Health Day, it’s time for the Government to be bold and to commit to enshrining the Student Mental Health Charter in legislation.
Norman Lamb is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk.