The NHS should strive for “zero suicides” throughout its mental health services in England, the Health Secretary has said, as he described the suicide rate as a “litmus test” for healthcare quality.
The Government will require every mental health facility in England to draw up detailed plans for preventing suicide, Jeremy Hunt said, including improved patient observation, better collection of data and safer psychiatric wards.
Speaking at the National Suicide Prevention Alliance conference in London on Wednesday, Mr Hunt said the Government would focus this year on reducing suicides among people who are already in contact with mental health services.
These patients are at higher risk of suicide than the general population, accounting for 25% of all suicides in England, according to latest figures.
In 2015, there were 81 “preventable” suicides of inpatients.
The new policy, which will see £25 million made available to local trusts from April 2018, builds on the Government’s 2015 ambition to reduce the suicide rate to zero.
“For me, suicide is the litmus test of the extent to which we are improving our overall quality of care,” the Health Secretary said.
“Obviously, it’s the ultimate thing that can go wrong.”
“We have got to create a culture where people feel supported to be open and transparent about mistakes they may have made,” he said.
Mr Hunt pointed to the example of UK airlines, which celebrated zero passenger deaths last year due to their “open culture” where pilots are encouraged to report “near-misses” anonymously.
“Everyone is a human being, everyone will make mistakes, everyone will make judgments that turn out in retrospect not to have been correct.”
He said each suicide of a mental health patient is a “tragedy”, describing an “incredibly moving conversation” he recently had with a nurse working in the North East, whose patient had thrown himself off a bridge the day after she had seen him.
“We know in our hearts that every suicide of someone who is undergoing specialist NHS mental healthcare is a potential failure of care,” he said.
“Not a failure of the individual, quite possibly and quite likely a failure of the system, but nonetheless a failure.”
Mr Hunt also assured delegates that the zero suicide targets would not prompt “defensive practices” where hospitals become reluctant to discharge patients.
Ged Flynn, chief executive of suicide charity Papyrus, which campaigns to help young people, welcomed the policy but said the “zero suicide” target should be extended beyond mental health facilities and into ordinary communities.
Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Samaritans, said she was “pleased to see a focus on the safety of people experiencing suicidal thoughts while in the care of mental health services”.
“Every death is a tragedy and every person who takes their own life is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter,” she said.
“At the same time, three times more people die by suicide than by road accidents and, of those, two thirds have had no contact with mental health services in the year before their death.
“Suicide is complex and it’s everybody’s business.
“It is only by working together that we can prevent the families, friends and communities of more than 6,000 people a year in the UK being devastated by the loss of a loved one to suicide.”