Population size and density are sensitive political issues in...
Last week Theresa May appointed Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price to the additional role of Minister for suicide prevention. Whilst recognising the spiritual and moral value of preventing suicide, I wondered how a Government Minister might achieve that.
This appointment came on top of the earlier appointment of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness. Are these posts necessary and what difference can Westminster politician make in the lives of lonely and mentally ill people?
Crouch’s appointment was a response to last year’s report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Cox was the Labour MP for Batley and Spens murdered by a constituent in 2016. She set up the Commission because she said, “I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us.”
The British Red Cross reckons there are over 9 million adults in this country who are often or always lonely. Action for Children reports that 43% of the 17-25 year olds using their services have experienced problems with loneliness. People with disabilities and more than 1 in 3 people over 75 experience loneliness. Three out of four GPs say that the real reason between 1 and 5 people a day come to their surgeries is because they are lonely.
This compelling evidence led the Cox Commission to call for the appointment of a lead Minister to ensure the creation of a national indicator of loneliness, to be a catalyst for action and to press local politicians, business leaders and employers, community and voluntary groups, to tackle loneliness.
That there might be a link between loneliness and suicide in some people’s lives is obvious. Ms Doyle-Price’s appointment coincided with the first global mental health summit, chaired by Theresa May and attended by ministers and officials from more than 50 countries, but the appointment was not just a token gesture related to that event. The NHS says at least a sixth of the population in England aged 16-64 have a mental health problem and severe mental illness is on the increase.
There are about 6,000 suicides in the UK each year and it is the biggest cause of death amongst men up to the age of 49. Mental health problems frequently develop in childhood and in three-quarters of cases mental illness is established by the age of 24. Hitherto mental health has been underfunded and part of Ms Doyle-Price’s job will be to change that. Ensuring that the use of police cells are no longer used for people with mental health problems will be another of her priorities.
However brilliant Jackie Doyle-Price and Tracey Crouch are in their new roles, there are limits to what they can achieve on their own. We all have a part to play and therein lies part of the problem. On the same day Doyle-Price was appointed an article in the Times announced “Don’t feel guilty, selfishness is the new religion”. The writer observed, “Social media and self-help books are spreading the message that it’s good to reject others and look after number one”. He quotes Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life in which Peterson argues “Not only should you take care of yourself. You should also strongly consider not caring for others”.
That is totally at odds with Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the priority he gives to loving your neighbour as yourself. There are things these two Ministers can do – raising the priority given to mental health and urging public bodies to do more to combat loneliness- but ordinary people and families are the first line of care. If looking after number one really is the new religion the need for Christians and Churches to be counter-cultural is obvious.
Neighbourhood Watch schemes seek to protect homes from criminal activity but they could also be a means of discovering signs of loneliness and mental illness in one’s neighbours. Friendly conversations may be all that are needed but older neighbours might welcome some help in the garden or with shopping. Churches can organises regular lunches, expressing our love for lonely people. The Good Samaritan really does still have a role to play.