What Does the Executive Have To Hide In Relation To Its Suicide Prevention Measures?

A less than forthcoming Freedom of Information response from the Executive raises questions around the apparent secrecy on an issue of huge public importance. Sara Boyce  |  Thu Dec 10 2020
Suicide prevention policies are of huge public importance

On 8 October PPR submitted a Freedom of Information request, seeking information on the work of this group. On 20 November, past the statutory deadline,  the Executive Office sent an email stating that it was ‘currently awaiting confirmation from other departments if the information they hold can be released’. As of 8 December no information had been received.

It is difficult to imagine what information relating to various government departments’ action on suicide prevention would be that sensitive that it would require separate clearance by each Department in turn.

The background to this request is as follows.

In late January 2020, following a high profile public campaign calling for urgent action on suicide prevention, the NI Executive announced that it was setting up a high level Executive working group to address the issue.

This announcement followed sustained public and media criticism of the lack of urgency from the Executive in addressing the issue of suicide. An open letter by the 123GP campaign and signed by 200 plus stars of music, arts, sports and those in public life called on the Department of Health to declare a public health emergency in relation to the issue of suicide. It also called for a doubling of funding for counselling and the introduction of a waiting time target for counselling.

The Minister for Health Mr. Robin Swann, refused to meet with 123GP campaigners at the time. Instead he announced the establishment of a high level Executive Working Group on Mental Health, Emotional Resilience and Suicide Prevention. All Executive ministers were to be represented on the group and it was to meet four times a year. Its first meeting was on 4 March, followed by meetings in July and October.

Its stated aim is to coordinate and strengthen the approach to dealing with mental health issues and suicide prevention. The Group also monitors and reports on progress of relevant departmental actions and examines wider progress in relation to the implementation of the Protect Life 2 strategy. Each meeting was followed by a press release, however its Terms of Reference, membership, meeting agendas or minutes were not made public. PPR therefore requested this information under Freedom of Information.

In working class communities, rates of deaths by suicide are three times higher than in other areas.

All of the information requested is in the public interest. While NISRA may have recently made changes to how it records deaths by suicide, leading to a fairly significant overnight reduction in the numbers, the issue of suicide is still of huge concern to all communities in NI. None more so than in working class communities, where rates of deaths by suicide are three times higher than in other areas.

Communiites need to know that government is prioritising this issue.  Announcing a high level working group back in January was a good start. However, this apparent reluctance to share information on the work of that group, for no obvious reason, does nothing to inspire confidence in the public; instead it has the opposite effect. The Executive should now release all of the information requested without further delay.

Sara Boyce works as an organiser with the #123GP mental health rights campaign. She has worked with PPR since 2016, both as an organiser and also as a policy worker across a range of campaigns supported by PPR. Prior to joining PPR Sara worked on both sides of the Irish border with a range of community and human rights organisations, including with Traveller groups and children and young people’s organisations.

She also worked for over a decade from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s as a Speech and Language Therapist, before undertaking a Masters in Equality Studies in UCD in 2006. Sara is passionate about promoting the power of poetry and other forms of creativity in challenging oppression and inequality at all levels.

‘Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution and raising consciousness.’ (Alice Walker)