Political headlines of late have been dominated by either ‘walk outs’ over Brexit or ‘talk outs’ over so-called ‘up-skirting’. Neither, has done much to enhance the reputation of Westminster procedures, though most people, I suspect, have simply been left baffled.
Less headline-grabbing, but perhaps of more immediate concern to many, were the issues under discussion during a debate on mental health at Holyrood last week. Scottish Liberal Democrats have few opportunities to decide the subject for parliamentary debate, but having consistently made mental health a priority over recent years, we were determined to grab the chance once again to train the spotlight on this vital issue.
The debate itself was extremely timely, coming on the back of a succession of reports laying bare the extent to which the Scottish Government is failing to meet the needs of those suffering poor mental health. Despite the appointment of a dedicated Minister for Mental Health two years ago, progress in key areas appears to be going backwards.
Fewer than half of new mothers are served by adequate perinatal mental health services. Waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services are now longer than at any time since the current targets were set. And 1,000 adults have waited a year or more for access to psychological therapies, twice as many as when the Minister came into post.
In response, the government points to additional money invested in mental health services and argues that the pressures are, in part, a result of more people coming forward for help. Given the stigma traditionally associated with mental health, greater public awareness and a willingness of people to admit they need support is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
However, as far as we have come in this country in getting people to finally talk more openly about mental health and to come forward, we do them profound harm if, once we have encouraged them out of the shadows and got them to recognise the problems they are experiencing, there is an absence of services to offer them.
This should not, of course, be taken as criticism of the efforts by those working in our health and care services. I know how committed they are, and how desperately they want to be able to provide the advice, support and treatment needed by those who approach them for help. During the debate, one MSP even quoted a number of his constituents who had received such help and the life-changing, life-saving difference it had made. At the moment, however, too often help is not available due to a lack of training, capacity or adequate resources.
My own contribution to the debate focused on concerns surrounding the government’s suicide prevention strategy. Already delayed by 18 months, an early draft was labelled “very disappointing” by The Samaritans while the Mental Health Foundation Scotland suggested that “suicide prevention has lost impetus and drive at both national and local levels”.
The Foundation has called for strong national leadership and efforts to recapture the momentum of the initial phase of the Choose Life programme, when suicide numbers fell sharply. That certainly strikes a chord with what I understand is happening locally in Orkney, where a lack of resources and dedicated coordinator have undermined any chance of undertaking the sort of work that saw Choose Life make such an impact in its early years.
Whether or not it is an anomaly, the fact that the latest figures showed a rise in suicides in Scotland for the first time in years should shake Ministers out of any complacency that may have settled in. We need to see leadership, resources and an urgent timescale. As opposition parties united to defeat the government, this was the strong message from the debate in Scottish Parliament last week.
On average, every day in Scotland two people take their own lives. Each is a tragedy and each is devastating for the people who are left behind, but each needs to be seen in the context that suicide is preventable. As the Mental Health Foundation Scotland rightly put it, “no caring society or government should tolerate the suffering and despair that leads a person to take their own life.”