Address by Mr. Tim O’Malley T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the Launch of Schizophrenia Ireland’s new document, “Supporting Life”.

I am delighted to have been invited here tonight to launch your Document “Supporting Life” which addresses issues surrounding high risk and vulnerable people within the context of suicide prevention.

Schizophrenia Ireland plays and continues to play a major role in educating public opinion about mental illness and in addressing the needs of all those affected by schizophrenia and related illnesses. This document will address the issues confronting people with severe mental illness and hopefully prevent unnecessary loss of life.

Schizophrenia Ireland has been active over many years in creating a more tolerant attitude to mental illness in Ireland.  The organisation has also contributed to the significant changes which have taken place in the delivery of mental health services throughout the country. Many of the services provided by the Association are run in close co-operation with statutory mental health services and with the support and backing of the Department of Health and Children and the health service executive. Throughout the country, priority is being given to education awareness and to promoting a better understanding among the public of mental health issues.  In this regard the document being covered is of particular importance and is very encouraging in enlightening people that suicide is preventable and the future for people with schizophrenia has never been brighter.

The problem of suicide has become a serious one in Ireland.  A suicide is a tragic and shattering occurrence that not only brings a life to an untimely end but also has a devastating impact on family and friends. Unfortunately suicide is the main cause of premature death in people with schizophrenia. Suicide is preventable and the importance of highlighting that fact cannot be overemphasized. Preventing suicide means influencing, in a corrective and constructive way, a person’s development and their own resources at different phases of life.

Data recently published by the CSO indicates that there were 457 deaths from suicide registered in 2004, an increase of 13 on the 2003 figure of 444.  These figures are disappointing and indicate that no effort can be spared to reduce what is a major cause of death, particularly among young people.  The high incidence of suicide in the general population is not confined to Ireland but is a growing global problem. Apart from the increase in the overall rate of suicide in Ireland, a disturbing feature is the significant rise in the male suicide rate. Young males have shown a significant increase in the rate of suicide. These are worrying trends which require further research so that better strategies are developed to help people who are particularly at risk. All efforts to reduce the suicide rate deserve our full support.   With greater understanding of the nature of the problem the number of suicides can be reduced.

The challenge of suicide prevention is now one of the most urgent issues facing society. Adolescence is traditionally viewed as a time of profound change when young people make the transition to adult status.  This transition is not easy and for many young people is accompanied by levels of self-doubt, fear and stress.  An important aspect of suicide prevention is to promote self-esteem and self-confidence and to ensure that all young people develop personal and social skills.  Children and young people need support in gaining control over their lives and coping with their problems.

As many of you will be aware, work is now well underway on the preparation of a new National Action-oriented Strategy for suicide prevention. This Strategy, which is being prepared by the Project Management Unit, HSE, in partnership with the National Suicide Review Group and supported by the Department of Health and Children, will be action-based from the outset and it will build on existing policy as set out in the National Task Force on Suicide (1998). All measures aimed at reducing the number of deaths by suicide will be considered in the context of the preparation of this Action Plan, which is on target for publication in September this year.

The stresses and pressures associated with every day life combine in many cases with difficulties in coping with significant life events such as bereavement, unemployment and interpersonal relationship problems.  Almost every family in Ireland has had or will have some experience of mental illness. Mental illness does not just affect the sufferer it also affects the person’s family, friends, employer and colleagues.  To experience a relative, friend or employee who suffers from a mental illness can be confusing and traumatic.

Government policy in the area of mental health care is to provide care in the community by offering the right level of intervention and support to enable people with psychiatric and psychological difficulties to achieve the maximum independence and control over their lives. We are continuing to develop, a modern comprehensive community-based mental health service. This has resulted in a continuing decline in the number of in-patients with a corresponding increase in the provision of a range of care facilities based in the community to complement in-patient services. Many of you here today will have experienced this change in the delivery of services, which has brought about many improvements in patient care.

I do accept however, that much still remains to be done.  The Government is committed to the provision of quality care in the area of mental health, to upholding the civil and human rights of those who suffer from mental illness and to encouraging measures aimed at combating the stigma that is often associated with such illness.

Voluntary bodies operating alongside statutory health services form an integral and vital element of the system of health care in this country.  I would like to take this opportunity to commend the commitment and dedication of the independent, voluntary organisations whose work brings so many benefits to the community as a whole.  Your input is invaluable with its emphasis on helping people to become responsible for their own lives links you closely with the kind of service we are now trying to create. Modern healthcare accepts that each person must play a central role in their own treatment and recovery. It recognizes that each individual plays a critical and essential role in the assessment of their own needs and that quality of care is inextricably linked to the involvement of the user in determining their health care.

There is a growing awareness among service providers that establishing a good quality of life for patients requires their involvement in the planning of the services that are important to them and which support their choices.  The perspective of the patient and their families needs to be understood and appreciated.

The mental health services, both statutory and voluntary, have met the challenges of change in recent years with enthusiasm and vigor and I am confident that the further development of our services, in a spirit of partnership between statutory and voluntary bodies, will be approached in the same positive manner.

As many of you know I established an Expert Group on Mental Health Policy in 2003 to prepare a national policy framework for the further modernisation of mental health services, updating the 1984 policy document, “Planning for the Future”. During 2004, a comprehensive consultation process was undertaken on behalf of the Group which comprised written submissions, questionnaires, two public consultation days and a one-to-one consultation process with service users in the Adult Mental Health Services.

I am delighted that Mr. John Saunders, Director of Schizophrenia Ireland, is a member of the Expert Group as his knowledge and experience is of great value to the work of the group.  The Expert Group is expected to complete its work and publish its report later this year.

In conclusion, I would like thank you all for the warm welcome that I have received here this evening. I pay tribute to everybody involved in the work of Schizophrenia Ireland and I believe that the services it provides are of real practical value to the many families affected by mental illness. I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those associated with the production of this document continued success in their endeavours in promoting our mental wellbeing.