Sajid Javid and the Samaritans: 'Suicide prevention training for MPs will save lives'
Former health secretary Sajid Javid and Samaritan's Jacqui Morrissey (photography by David Bebber)
“I really, genuinely think this kind of training for MPs will save lives,” says Sajid Javid, ahead of his event with the emotional support charity Samaritans in Speakers House tomorrow morning.
The former health secretary has invited MPs to a suicide prevention training session led by the Samaritans to help recognise signs of suicidal behaviour and signpost options for support.
“MPs are almost like a final port of call to try and help people with their problems,” Javid says, “sadly there will be people who are really distressed about something and they've become very vulnerable; there are signs that an MP or their staff can pick up on, to signpost them in the right way and maybe get others involved with their permission.”
“It could save a life.”
I didn't know my brother had these kinds of dark thoughts ... I think there could have been a few things that I could have picked up
Over 6,000 people took their own life in 2021 in the UK and every 90 minutes someone dies from suicide in the UK alone. It is the biggest cause of death for under 35s and the Samaritans answer a call for help every 10 seconds.
Sitting down with Javid in his parliamentary office, Jacqui Morrissey, co-chair of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and assistant director of influencing at Samaritans, says: “We're really aware that MPs are often on the frontline, talking to constituents who might be at risk, but also with their colleagues and friends. This is a really important opportunity to build awareness and understanding of suicide.
“In raising awareness with parliamentarians, we can help challenge some of those myths that are still pervasive about suicide and give them some tips about how to spot the signs and how to have a conversation with someone.”
Javid lost his eldest brother Tariq, 51, to suicide in 2018. It has affected the way he interacts with family and friends now, he says: “One way I've changed is just to go much further. I think we all sort of say we are fine when someone asks: ‘How are you?’ But with your friends or your family, you obviously know them quite well and you might know something going on in their life that you've heard about that can be distressing. It will often be a good reason just to probe a bit more and get them to open up… take a few minutes with them to ask: ‘How are you really doing? Come on, tell me about it.’ It is always worth it.”
The former health secretary still questions whether he could have done something to prevent his brother’s death.
“It obviously made me and my family think more about what happened and what we could have done. I've heard that from so many that have had losses in their families or their friends from suicide, where people say: ‘I wish I had spotted signs’,” Javid says poignantly.
“I didn't know my brother had these kinds of dark thoughts but now looking back with some of the things that I've learned, I think there could have been a few things that I could have picked up on where he was trying to send a message to me or my brothers and I didn’t pick up on it. I can't change that and I'll never be able to change that.”
Both Javid and Morrissey agree that they would like to see all MPs receive some form of suicide prevention training – and Morrissey suggests taking it even further with training MPs staff and the Samaritans are calling on all public sector frontline workers to receive training.
“One of the things we know about people who die by suicide is that two thirds of them aren't in touch with mental health services before their death, but they are probably in touch with another service. It might be education, criminal justice, their GP, the job centre, or the housing officer, Morrissey says.
“There's lots of people out there with these frontline facing roles. If we could get that government commitment to train all those people to spot risks, identify the signs, know how to signpost people and help them get support – that could really be transformational.”
She adds: “I think MPs have got a really important role to play, both during the training themselves, getting their office and their staff to do the training, but also in their constituency encouraging employers and local organisations to sign up.”
The former health secretary chimes in simply: “I agree with all of that.”
The government’s five year national suicide prevention strategy was announced in September but, while promising, Morrissey wants to ensure it is properly resourced.
Currently she says that it is “a five-year strategy with local funding that comes to an end in March” – and the Samaritans are calling on the government to renew local suicide prevention funding, with hopes that they may see this announced in the upcoming Autumn Statement, having made the calculations that it would cost only £1.40 per person.
Javid feels similarly, saying that he would like to see the funding renewal announced “ASAP” as it faces a cliff edge in March: “I'd be shocked if they don't go ahead with that. I hope there's good news on that for Wednesday.”
That is not the only thing the former health secretary is looking for from the Treasury to help suicide prevention. In the last budget, Javid says he was “pleased to see” the announcement of a £10m fund for charities to bid into – and he would now like to see that funding pool grow: “Since Jeremy Hunt announced that, there has been so much interest from some fantastic charities and I hope that he is able to maybe go further with that and provide more support to a lot of good local community organisations as well as the national organisations.”
One such organisation is male mental health charity Talk Club in Bristol, which Javid visited earlier this year. The group brings young men together to talk about ‘mental fitness’. It costs around £20-30 to put on each meeting that sees 10 to 20 men turn up – and Javid says is proof that “a few pounds can go a long way to community organisations”.
Another thing that both Javid and the Samaritans are looking for are targets looking at the reduction of suicide. Though targets “can be quite crude”, Javid admits, in certain circumstances it can “galvanise a whole government system”.
He adds: “I would like to see targets … suicide prevention has to have a whole government response.”
Parliamentarians really can play an important part in this because suicide is preventable
The former health secretary says any target must be “clear” and “reasonable” – and first suggests getting numbers down “from six and a half thousand to half that number over a few years”.
Morrissey and the Samaritans are looking at setting that target as “the lowest ever suicide rate recorded”: “At the moment, the stark truth is that suicide rates now are the same as they were twenty years ago, so let's have that ambition of reaching the lowest ever rate recorded.”
Upon listening, Javid chimes in and adds: “I agree with that. I think it is a very reasonable target. Ambitious, but achievable.”
It feeds into the wider discussion around mental health where, Morrissey says, over the past few years there has been great movement in people feeling confident talking about their mental health, but suicide remains a “really difficult subject to broach”.
There was disappointment from both the Samaritans and Javid that the mental health bill did not make an appearance in the King’s speech earlier this month.
The former health secretary, who worked on the bill, says: “I published the draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny and I did that deliberately because I thought, if we can get all that done, the future passage when it becomes a full bill should be easier and more straightforward. It's got a lot of crossparty support so I was disappointed not to see it in The King's Speech…
“I think whenever the next King's speech happens, it should be a priority.”
Morissey emphasises that the Samaritans want to show with the suicide prevention training is that “parliamentarians really can play an important part in this because suicide is preventable”.
Javid says the invitation alone has already sparked a wider conversation about suicide between his parliamentary colleagues.
At the invitation of Sir Graham Brady, the former health secretary went along to the 1922 committee to remind Conservative colleagues about the Samaritan’s event – and afterwards, one pulled Javid to the side and opened up to him about their experience with suicide and loss.
“He said, ‘I lost one of my closest friends to suicide last year.’ He was a farmer and sadly, farmers, rural communities, it's one of those where there's a risk factor [the risk of death by suicide being 1.7 times higher for agricultural workers than the general population]. The MP opened up about that, and he said: ‘I've never really talked to anyone about this. I'm talking to you about it now.’
“We went and stood in a corridor in the corner and he really opened up – and he said: ‘I'm so glad you're doing this training. I'll certainly be there, all my staff are going to be there. But why don't we try to do this two more times next year, so we can make sure every MP has done it.’ It was great support for what we're doing that he just opened up for the first time and it is why we are holding a reception after the Samaritans event so people have a space to talk.”
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