Highland projects aim to tackle rural suicide

Written by Peter Urpeth on 11 April 2019 in Inside Politics

Projects in the Highlands aim to tackle the problem of suicide in remote and rural areas. 

image credit: Holyrood

In October 2015, Ron Williamson travelled to Inverness following news that his nephew, Michael, had taken his own life. Forty-eight hours before Michael died, his friend, Martin, had also taken his own life.

At the wake, Williamson, who had no experience of working in mental health support services, having previously been a nightclub owner, talked with a dozen young men and concluded that many were in “difficult situations” and a ‘macho’ culture was preventing them from seeking help or discussing their problems. He vowed to work to address the issue, and using his experiences of attempting to give up smoking, struck on the idea of a text-based support service that, apart from the vital connection it could provide, could also act as a distraction and diversion to what Williamson calls “the tunnel-vision” of the moment. 

Shortly afterwards, ‘Mickey’s Line’ was launched and more recently, the service has grown to open The Hive, a new support centre in Inverness.

‘Mickey’s Line’ now has between 80 and 90 text interventions per week. It is just one of a number of voluntary sector support agencies working in the Highlands to address the problem of suicide, and its use of digital technology, a responsive text line that works in the evenings across the week with anonymity and confidentiality, is very much in line with the Scottish Government’s national strategy to secure a 20 per cent reduction in suicide.

In the Highlands, between 2012 and 2016, there were 245 suicides – 173 males and 72 females.

Last year, the Samaritans produced a report on reducing suicide in the Highlands. It found that contributing factors to suicide and self-harm in small towns and remote areas include: “gossip that isn’t benevolent”, social and personal stigma around mental health, problems mental health support workers face socialising in small communities, and the bottling-up of emotions, especially by men.

The Samaritans report also found that, amongst other factors, drug and alcohol use were significant problems, as were high levels of unemployment with pockets of what it describes as “real poverty”, and that the frequency of suicides “exacerbates feelings of suicide in some”, and has a “normalising effect on people’s experiences”.   

Other research has also shown the impact of different methodologies in rural areas to urban settings, with easier access to more-likely lethal forms of self-harm.

To this mix must be added the reality of distances and time from statutory services – the further a person is from the urban centres of the inner Moray Firth, the further they are from support services.

In response to the government’s National Suicide Prevention Plan, launched last August, a local Highland multi-agency Suicide Prevent Group (HSPG) has developed a strategy that aims to address these problems. Its focus mirrors the government’s approach in the national plan with a strong emphasis on the training of all public sector and voluntary sector staff who are in a position to be able to identify need and provide intervention or sign posting.

HSPG is also working to raise public awareness through such events as Suicide Prevention Week, and to support and facilitate new voluntary sector groups in areas of need. A new mobile app – Prevent Suicide Highland – has also been launched which, apart from detailed information on suicide and self-harm and sign posting to support services, also guides those who feel at risk in completing a ‘safety plan’.

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