In mid-pandemic, does suicide data in Scotland matter? Of course it does... Or does it? The bottom line sadly is that Scottish Government does not appear to think so because it is doing absolutely nothing to capture that current data. The same government keeps almost hourly data about Covid and its number of positive tests, hospitalisations and deaths with Covid. But no data about suicides whether caused by its lockdown rules or not.
Having had non-medical professional experience of people with serious mental health problems (to the point of planned, attempted or actual suicide), I became quickly concerned that the effect of long lockdown might be catastrophic on people in our country of more fragile mental state having seen and heard from those others what could be tipping points. What I had learned from those people was that, with the right interventions, lives could be saved. My earlier research online showed that the last published suicide data in Scotland was published at the end of June 2019 for the year 2018. It did not make pretty reading with a 15% increase on the previous year and Lanarkshire came out worst.
So I made an FOI request for data on suicides in Scotland during 2019 and the first half of 2020. On 31 August, I received a response which said:
The Scottish Government does not have the information you have asked for because the report for 2019 has been delayed as NRS has not received some of the information it relies on to categorise these deaths. It is not possible to produce reliable statistics without this information. In relation to deaths by suicide in 2020, this data would not usually be available as official statistics until June 2021.
I was encouraged to ask National Records of Scotland (NRS) and told I could also apply to the Scottish Government for a 'review'. I did ask NRS but they said that they had no information either because toxicology reports from the Crown Office were running late. The Crown Office is an organ of the State as far as I am aware.
Ruth Sutherland of the Samaritans was reported in early September 2020 as saying:
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has affected everyone in society, but Samaritans is particularly worried about three groups: people with pre-existing mental health conditions, young people who self-harm, and less well-off middle-aged men. It is essential that these groups are given the support they need before people reach crisis point. Suicide prevention must be a priority right now, so we can save lives.
The Centre for Mental Health in England speak eloquently of the catastrophic likely effect of Covid management on mental health for a range of reasons. Sarah Hughes of that organisation spoke out about the risks for young people in particular just a month ago. She said this:
The significant rise in mental ill-health amongst children and young people is both undeniable and extremely concerning. While the government have pledged more support for children and young people in schools, it is all too clear that this support must be both sped up and scaled up, to meet growing levels of need.
So on 19 November, I asked the Scottish Government for that review. In doing so, I said that 2020 is well known as being likely to see a spike in mental health issues. I mentioned that centreformentalhealth.org.uk
were predicting 10 million new or additional cases in England as a result of lockdown. There is anecdotal evidence of a significant number of suicides in Scotland this year. I suggested it was a dereliction of duty not to know anything about the suicide incidence, this calendar year especially.
The Scottish Government says on its own coronavirus website:
We need to monitor and understand emerging evidence on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on other groups where there are known health inequalities, including people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
That sounded to me like there is clear recognition that this is a serious issue and, as a result, I reckoned that the Scottish Government would have gathered some data as to whether suicide is a significant issue during this calendar year, so they could understand the emerging evidence to use their own words.
I received a response, dated 12 November, from the Scottish Government which said that 'the original decision should be confirmed without modifications' – perhaps translatable as please stop bothering us.
Bear in mind please that I did not ask for the official NRS data. I just asked the Scottish Government for any information they had on the number of suicides in that 18-month period or part of it. Their reply that they have none at all, even though I believe that they know that suicide is a material risk during lockdown, is mind boggling. I can't help but wonder whether they really do care because without the information that they say they need to monitor and understand, they cannot either effectively manage that risk themselves, or encourage or facilitate others to do so.
If I am right about all that, what sort of country does that make us?
On 24 November, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) announced the Scottish suicide data for 2019, with the melancholy news that the figure was 833, so up almost 50 people or 6.25% from 2018, which was not a good year by any standards. One really has to fear that 2020 will be even worse and that there will never be a worse case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. If I am right (which I hope I am not), I will feel wretched about it.
John Macmillan is a lawyer specialising in employment law