The incidence of suicide presents a real and growing problem. There were 527 deaths by suicide in 2009. This figure shows a worrying trend and represents a real tragedy in homes throughout the country. Unfortunately, this trend increased in 2010. Figures for the second quarter of 2010 show there were 127 deaths by suicide. This may only represent a small increase of 4% on the figure for the same period in 2009, but it is an increase nonetheless and each individual suicide represents a tragedy for a family and a community. Our focus must be on reducing the figures as a matter of urgency.
There is a need to address the underlying problems that lead to suicide such as alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and eating disorders. A recent UNICEF study of young people in Ireland found that more than half of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 20 years had experienced bullying. While I acknowledge many of our schools are running excellent anti-bullying courses and Professor Mona O'Moore from Trinity College has been highlighting the effects of bullying among young people, much more needs to be done in our schools, homes and communities.
While the suicide figures are shocking, the incidence of suicide is vastly under-reported, due in large part to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. In April 2010 See Change commissioned MillwardBrown Lansdowne to conduct a study of Irish attitudes towards mental ill health. One of the findings highlighted the problem of stigma. While seven out of ten Irish people believe anyone can develop a mental health problem, one in two would not want others to know if he or she had such a problem. The stigma around mental health issues is especially important for young people, many of whom are afraid to talk to someone about their problems.
In that context, I commend the new initiative by O2 and Headstrong, a community-based youth mental health service. The project is called Share a Happy Thought and encourages young people to share positive thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. For every happy thought O2 will donate €1 to support the provision of mental health services for young people. This is a worthwhile initiative both in terms of funding — the project could raise up to €200,000 for mental health services — and also being a great way to use social networking to raise awareness among young people of mental health issues and the services available to help them.
Much has been written about how the current economic climate has increased the risk of suicide. Unfortunately, this theory is confirmed by the 2009 figures for deaths by suicide which show a 15% increase on the figures for 2007. We need a multifaceted approach to dealing with suicide and depression. The programme for Government aims to reduce the pressure on families which are struggling to meet mortgage repayments. The upcoming jobs initiative is designed to reduce the very high unemployment figures which are, no doubt, contributing to high rates of mental health problems. However, our main focus must be on providing access to mental health services for communities.
Amnesty International has welcomed the Government's plans to prioritise mental health. One of the issues Amnesty International highlights is the importance of dealing with mental health in the community setting. It calls on the Government to deliver on its commitment to improve access to modern mental health services in the community. Amnesty International cites international evidence which shows that treating mental health problems in the community setting, rather than in a hospital setting, has a much higher success rate. Many of the key barriers to mental health treatment, such as cost and stigma, could be reduced if someone suffering from mental health problems could avoid going to hospital and instead be treated in familiar surroundings in their own area. Amnesty International highlights that both the 1992 Green Paper on mental health and the 1995 White Paper, A New Mental Health Act, called for legislation which would enable the health service to provide access to comprehensive community-based services. We can no longer leave reports such as that gathering dust on shelves. We must act now to make the recommendations of those papers a reality.
There are already many excellent organisations working to prevent suicide in the community and voluntary sector across the country, alongside primary care teams and local health offices. One of the agencies supported by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, Mental Health Ireland, has its head office in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire. It is a national voluntary organisation overseeing 104 local mental health associations throughout the country run by health professionals and lay people providing care and support for the mentally ill within the community setting. The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown outreach project also does great work in supporting individuals, families and communities affected by substance misuse — one of the major contributors to suicide in this country. Organisations such as those need our support. We must set up a co-ordinated approach to providing mental health services in community settings.
Before I refer to the Government's plan I wish to acknowledge the excellent work done by my colleague, Deputy Dan Neville, in this area for many years. He is president of the Irish Association of Suicidology. He has long been an advocate of greater supports for those affected by suicide and a stronger effort on suicide prevention. The programme for Government has committed to ring-fence funding of €35 million to develop community mental health teams and services. Part of the funding will be used to recruit additional psychologists and counsellors which will be integrated within primary care services.
Another positive development is the commitment by the Government to ensure that a comprehensive range of mental health services will be included in the standard insurance package under the planned universal health insurance scheme. Early intervention is key to reducing the risk of suicide and these measures will go a long way towards supporting community-based initiatives in treating mental illness and preventing suicide. I hope that the proposed reforms will take account of the organisations already working locally such as the ones I have mentioned in Dún Laoghaire. They are the people with the experience on the ground, who know intimately the mental health needs of the communities which the plans in the programme for government hope to serve.