A MENTAL health campaign group – which seeks to make it mandatory for mental health professionals to be part of all GP practices – has called on the government to halt cuts to GP services.

Last month the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) along with Coroner Joe McCricken conducted a review which saw 84% of 467 cases previously attributed to suicide being changed to the accidental deaths category, primarily due to the influence of alcohol and drugs. The effect of this meant that the overall suicide rate in the North fell, from being the highest in the United Kingdom, to the second highest, behind Scotland.

Sara Boyce, campaign organiser for the 123GP campaign, has echoed the sentiments of Renee Quinn, Director of Suicide Prevention charity PIPS, who last week welcomed the reduction in the number of suicides, but added that one death caused by suicide was still one too many.

Speaking about the new figures Ms Boyce said much work now needed to be done to address other findings in the review which showed that deprived areas in the North still had a rate almost double that of more affluent areas, and highlighted issues still ongoing in regards to people’s ability to access mental health care, such as through their GP service.

She said: “We wish to pay tribute to the herculean efforts of local communities across the North who work tirelessly, often with little funding and resources, to tackle the issue of suicide.

"There can be no acceptable number of deaths by suicide. Our collective aspiration should be to have zero suicides, not limited to a ten per cent reduction, as in the Protect Life 2 Strategy.

"These figures require an urgent response by government and all agencies tasked with addressing the issue of suicide. We now need to see intensified efforts to bring a sustained reduction in these preventable deaths.”

Despite more deaths now being listed as accidental, through the influence of alcohol and drugs, deaths in economically deprived areas were still far higher across the board, particularly in the Belfast area, which has the highest rate in the North.

“There is a strong link between inequality and preventable deaths, whether those are deaths by suicide, drugs and alcohol or other health related issues," she said. "We’ve seen the rate of drug-related deaths more than double in the past 10 years.”

To counteract this trend, Sara Boyce stated that the government should immediately halt the cuts they have made to GP services which have seen the numbers of counsellors in deprived areas attached to GP staff axed, which has resulted in people having less access to services, in places which it has been shown they are needed the most.

She stated: "Right now, there is an inverse care law in operation in relation to counselling provision. Those areas that are most deprived, like North and West Belfast, or inner East Belfast, with the highest rates of mental ill-health, have the worst access to mental health services.

"North and West Belfast between them contain the ten worst impacted areas in the entire North, measured against a mental health indicator. Yet in 2021, 16 GP practices across Belfast, including a number in both North and West Belfast, stopped providing in-house counselling.

"Beyond mental health and suicide prevention services, government needs to also tackle the underlying causes of emotional distress and despair.

"In the words of the late Bishop Desmond Tutu: There comes a point when we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

"Right now community-based counselling organisations are being defunded and losing counselling contracts. That needs to be addressed and reversed; community-based counselling needs to be properly funded.”