More than 400 people with terminal or chronic illnesses commit suicide each year, but the issue is being neglected by government and health services, says Demos.
In a report today, The Truth About Suicide, the think-tank revealed that at least 10% of suicide cases in England involved people with terminal or chronic illnesses, but this was probably a “significant underestimate”.
Although there are established risk factors for suicide – including gender, drug abuse and mental illness – the effects of physical illness were often overlooked and, as a result, ignored in national and local suicide prevention strategies.
“The lack of attention paid to people with terminal or chronic illness committing suicide is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the government and health services,” said report author and Demos researcher Louise Bazalgette.
“The difficulty we experienced in tracking down evidence of the relationship between physical illness and suicide suggests a wilful avoidance of what is an extremely important public health issue.”
The report found failings in joint-working between primary care trusts and coroners on suicide prevention strategies, while interviews with 15 chief coroners uncovered evidence that coroners sometimes failed to acknowledge cases of suspected assisted suicide.
Demos called for local suicide audits to be made a requirement because “a systematic collection of information could help reduce suicides in the UK through deeper understanding of at-risk groups”. The 2002 national suicide prevention strategy for England recommends that PCTs complete annual suicide audits, though this is not compulsory.
Freedom of information requests sent to 147 primary care trusts found that only 29 provided data about suicide and physical illness; 18 provided figures relating to suicide and chronic illness, and 11 provided data relating to suicide and terminal illness.
Demos also called for improved guidance on suicide audits for PCTs, including specifying the minimum level of information that is required and national guidance on the information coroners should share with agencies, such as PCTs.
The Public Bodies Bill, now making its way through parliament, would compel coroners to include details of the person’s medical history in an inquest.
The findings will inform the Commission on Assisted Dying, which is hosted by Demos and is due to report this year.
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