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How new UK suicide prevention minister’s old joke returned to haunt her

Sajeda Momin

Published: Updated:

Within hours of being appointed UK’s first minister for suicide prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price has become mired in controversy as it emerged that she had previously joked about the serious issue of suicide.

Coinciding with World Mental Health Day (October 10) Prime Minister Teresa May announced that she was forming a new ministry for the prevention of suicides – a first of its kind in the world.

Hosting a World Mental Health Summit attended by officials from around 50 countries, May took the initiative to show how seriously the UK takes the issue of mental health. Though suicide rates are falling there are still about 4,500 suicides in Britain every year. According to government research it is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 45.

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The new minister will lead the government’s efforts to cut the number of suicides and overcome the stigma that prevents people with mental health problems from seeking help. She will have to ensure that local areas have effective plans to stop unnecessary deaths and also look into how technology can help identify those at risk or vulnerable.

“We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives,” said May. “We can give the mental well-being of our children the priority it so profoundly deserves,” added May.

The Prime Minister pledged £1.8 million to the Samaritans’ helpline, a free, confidential 24-hour phone line that provides a listening ear to those with suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues. The new ministry comes within just months of Britain having appointed a minister for loneliness – another first.

Opening doors

Professor Louis Appleby, one of the country’s leading experts on suicide welcomed the move and said having a minister for suicide prevention would “open doors”. He added that it would make it easier to have conversations about what makes people suicidal.

Doyle-Price, who is also the health minister, said she understood the “tragic, devastating and long-lasting” effect of suicide on families having met some of those bereaved. “It is these people who need to be at the heart of what we do, and I welcome this opportunity to work closely with them, as well as experts, to oversee a cross-government suicide prevention plan making sure their views are always heard,” said the new minister.

However, Doyle-Price will first have to live down a comment she had made a few years ago before she can get on with her new job. Speaking to a local newspaper in her parliamentary constituency of Thurrock she had said she would rather jump off a notorious suicide spot than join Ukip, the far right Brexit party.

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“I would sooner jump off Beachy Head than join Ukip,” Doyle-Price had said in 2014. Around 20 people commit suicide by jumping from Beachy Head, a cliff in East Sussex, every year. Authorities now patrol the area in an attempt to deter people planning to jump.

Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has called her comments “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” as they show lack of understanding of mental health issues. Critics argue that she should at least apologize before taking up her new portfolio or the government should find a more suitable person to head such a sensitive ministry.

However the Prime Minister’s Office said they were not aware of the comments.