I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise this issue. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for her attendance and her record in contributing to mental health awareness and suicide prevention during the lifetime of this Government. Over the past 25 years, there have been many changes in how we address the issue of suicide in Ireland. Suicide was decriminalised in 1993 after I had brought three Private Members' Bills to the Seanad. The publication of the report of the national task force on suicide in 1998 was followed by the national strategy for action on suicide prevention, Reach Out, which covered the period from 2005 to 2014. These reports, along with the more recent Connecting for Life strategy, have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of suicide. I hope this will lead to a reduction in suicide levels and an improvement in the supports provided to those who are suicidal and those who have been bereaved by suicide.
Over many years, community groups have been working to support people in crisis and to reduce the suicide rates in their communities. Some of these groups operate on a national basis and support communities through local branches. Other groups were set up in response to local tragedies. Regardless of the size and structure of these groups, all of them make an invaluable contribution to reducing the risk of suicide in Ireland. It has been established that as many as 250 or 300 groups provide support to those who are at risk of suicide. The truth is that we do not know the actual figure because the sector is fragmented, with many groups working in isolation. Parts of the country are over-subscribed with support organisations, while gaps in support services exist in other parts of the country. Over the past 25 years, national and regional forums and networks have been established to share information and provide support to one another in the work they do. If we are to tackle this issue, we need to take the next step in developing our response to suicide prevention. We can do this by pulling together the collective knowledge of all the groups working in the sector and by creating a national forum into which regional networks can make an input and from which such networks can learn.
In 2013, the Irish Association of Suicidology invited the University of Ulster to draw up a report on the establishment of an accreditation model for groups working in suicide prevention. This was supported by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. The aim of the establishment of such a model would be to create a sector that can offer an improved response to those who require the services of voluntary organisations, to ensure voluntary suicide prevention groups look after their volunteers and staff and to create a forum in which experience, innovation, knowledge and the mistakes made by the voluntary sector can be shared. The idea of accreditation is not new. The American Association of Suicidology has had such a model in place since 1976. It has been talked about in Ireland since 2007. It is proposed to allow the sector to develop its own model, rather than having a model imposed on it by the State. Under the model that is proposed, the sector sets standards based on best practice within their own organisations. Groups are encouraged and supported to reach the standards they have set. With the Minister's support, funding to develop this model and commence work was agreed with the National Office for Suicide Prevention.
In March 2011, a small group of organisations working in the area of suicide prevention and operating accreditation models were consulted to see if and how the accreditation model could work in the suicide prevention sector. Over 100 organisations that provide suicide prevention services were consulted. The outcome of both consultations endorsed the need for such a model and emphasised the importance of the model being developed and run by the sector itself. There is no quick solution when such a model is being developed. The suicide prevention sector, like any other sector, has its own particular nuances that need to be addressed by the model being put in place. The development of this model will take approximately a year. A further two years will be required to allow groups to make the transition from their current operating practices to the accredited model. The benefits for service users and groups will reward the effort and time that will have to be put in over a period of three years. We envisage that the accreditation model will advise, support and assist established groups and those that will get involved in this area in years to come. This is happening on an ongoing basis. Best practice is to be advised when suicide prevention organisations are being set up and operated. This is in the interests of ensuring maximum assistance can be provided at local and national levels to voluntary organisations that seek to prevent suicide, to create an understanding of the issues around suicide and mental ill-health and, of course, to assist the suicidal and advise the bereaved on how to deal with these tragic cases.