By Sally Wardle, Press Association Health and Science Correspondent
The Prime Minister has appointed what is thought to be the world’s first Minister for Suicide Prevention in a bid to cut the number of people taking their own lives.
Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price will lead the national effort and try to end the stigma which stops people from seeking help, Theresa May announced as she marked World Mental Health Day.
Around 4,500 people take their lives every year in England and suicide remains the leading cause of death among men under the age of 45.
The Prime Minister has also pledged up to £1.8 million to ensure the Samaritans’ helpline remains free for the next four years, to help those most in need.
Labour said a focus on suicide prevention was “long overdue” and warned that a lack of funding had forced people to wait months for treatment in some areas.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the PM’s announcement is a “step forward that must now be matched by proper funding and more ambitious delivery”.
Speaking at a reception to mark World Mental Health Day, Mrs May is expected to say: “We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence. We can prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives.
“And we can give the mental well-being of our children the priority it so profoundly deserves.”
The Prime Minister will also say that “parity of care” is a priority of the NHS long-term plan, which will include “record investment” in mental health.
Ms Doyle-Price, now Minister for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention, will ensure every local area has effective plans in place to stop unnecessary deaths and investigate how technology can help identify those most at risk.
She said: “In my time as Health Minister I have met many people who have been bereaved by suicide and their stories of pain and loss will stay with me for a long time.
“It’s these people who need to be at the heart of what we do and I welcome this opportunity to work closely with them, as well as experts, to oversee a cross-Government suicide prevention plan, making their sure their views are always heard.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the suicide rate it at its lowest for seven years, although each is a tragic but “preventable” death.
“We need to do more to challenge the stigma that people with mental ill-health face and make sure they feel they can reach out for help,” he said.
As well as the new ministerial position, the Government announced that new mental health support teams will work with schools to ensure young people get the help they need.
Meanwhile, a new report will be published into the state of young people’s mental health every year on World Mental Health Day.
The second day of the Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit takes place in London on Wednesday.
The PM’s announcement comes a day after the National Audit Office said the Government may be “even further away than it thought” from achieving its goal of equal access to physical and mental health services for young people.
The NAO said even if current initiatives are delivered as planned, there would still be “significant unmet need” for mental health care.
Responding to the report, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “This is an improvement on what there was before and it is still way off where we need to be.”
The public spending watchdog also warned that the number of young people with a mental health condition is likely to be higher than previously estimated, which will make Government ambitions harder to realise.
Labour has had a shadow cabinet minister for mental health since 2015 and the party has pledged to increase spending on services and protect budgets.
The current shadow minister, Barbara Keeley, said: “A focus on suicide prevention is long overdue given the appalling increase in suicide rates since 2010, particularly among young people, but it also needs proper funding of front line services.
“Mental health services are still being underfunded by the Conservative Government, with one in 10 CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) failing to meet the mental health investment standard in the last year – that is leading to adults having to wait as many as four months for treatment in certain areas, while one in four children are being rejected for treatment after referral.”
The Children’s Commissioner welcomed Mrs May’s announcement, but added: “We need to see urgent action and implementation now. We cannot afford to wait five years, which feels like a lifetime to a young child.
“I want to see a counsellor in every secondary school, every primary school having access to counselling services, a closing of the huge gap in what is spent on adult and children’s mental health and a system in place that provides support and treatment for every child who needs it, when they need it.”
The Samaritans operate a round-the-clock freephone service 365 days a year for people who want to talk in confidence. They can be contacted by phone on 116 123 or by visiting samaritans.org