Address by Mr. Tim O’Malley T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the Schizophrenia Ireland National Lucia Week event in the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre.

Thank you for the invitation to be with you today for Schizophrenia Irelands’ National Awareness Day. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this event and the launch of your document which is focusing on “Supporting Life” (Suicide Prevention for Mental Healthcare Users).  I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and recognise the importance and value of the work of your organisation in highlighting and responding to the needs of those in our society who suffer from mental ill-health.

This document aptly entitled “Supporting Life” provides detailed information on a variety of areas including suicide prevention in Ireland, mental health services, national mental health policy, suicide and schizophrenia. I believe that the section on dealing with suicidal thoughts will be a useful resource for many users of the mental health services, while the story of the person with schizophrenia who attempted suicide is particularly poignant and will unfortunately be all too familiar for many readers of this document.

I am aware that Schizophrenia Ireland has been active over many years in creating a more tolerant attitude to mental illness in Ireland.  The organisation is committed to the best quality service for its members. It is to be applauded for bringing the issue of suicide prevention for this vulnerable group to our attention. It 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.

The problem of suicide has become a serious one in this country. 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. It has been recognized that people with schizophrenia are more vulnerable to suicide than any other group in the general population. It is important to highlight the fact that suicide is preventable and that there is a better future with people with schizophrenia. This presents a serious challenge to all interested parties tackling this problem.  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 Central Statistics Office indicates that there were 457 deaths from suicide registered in 2004 an increase of 13 on the 2003 figure of 444. These figures are very disappointing and highlight the need to further intensify our efforts and to put additional resources in place for suicide research and suicide prevention programmes 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 will often require support to gain control over their lives and to cope with their problems.

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.

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.

We are all aware that good mental health is an integral component of general health and well-being, which allows a person to realise his or her abilities.  With a balanced mental disposition, one is more effective in coping with the stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is better able to make a positive contribution to his or her community.  Thankfully, society now recognises more fully the burden that mental illness places on sufferers and their families.

As we know, people with a mental illness were excluded, for many years, from full participation in community life as a result of widespread stigmatisation of mental illness. Thankfully, there is now recognition of the right of each person to participate fully in the social, economic, political and cultural activities of their communities.  Recognition of that right is vital if we are to build an inclusive society in which all of our citizens can contribute their experiences, talents and abilities. The core principle underlying this policy is that persons suffering from any form of ill health should be enabled to live as independently as possible.

Mental health promotion is a very broad concept as it emphasises the promotion of the psychological health and well being of individuals, families and communities.  I see it as a key task of the health services not just to treat mental illness but more importantly, using the principles of health promotion, to try and improve the mental health of the population at large.

There is a growing awareness and concern throughout the country about mental health matters and the National Health Promotion Strategy, 2000-2005, in conjunction with the health strategy “Quality and Fairness”, sees mental health as being equally as important as physical health in the overall wellbeing of a person.  Increasingly, mental health is being recognised as a major challenge facing health services in the twenty first century.

The promotion of positive mental health will contribute significantly to combating the ignorance and stigma, which often surrounds mental illness. Better understanding of mental illness encourages people to access professional help sooner rather than later and this facilitates early recovery.

Schizophrenia Ireland already plays and I am confident will continue 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.

I think you will all agree that substantial changes have been unfolding in the mental health services in Ireland in recent years. The perception of an institutional style mental health service, standing in isolation and closed from the rest of the community, is thankfully becoming a thing of the past.

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.

Voluntary organisations and their members have an essential role in a community-based mental health service.  Your work in Schizophrenia Ireland, 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.  The contributions of your organisation and other voluntary organisations have been central in advancing the aims of suicide prevention across the country.

Modern healthcare accepts that each person must play a central role in their own treatment of 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. The Expert Group has consulted widely in relation to its work.  Submissions were requested from interested organisations, individuals and the general public in October 2003 and over 150 submissions were received.  The Group is due to report later this year.

I am delighted that Mr. John Saunders, Director of Schizophrenia Ireland, is a member of the Expert Group and I am sure 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 morning. 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 people and their families.