Last week Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price to the additional role of minister for suicide prevention.
While recognising the spiritual and moral value of preventing suicide, I wondered how a government minister might achieve that.
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 among men up to the age of 49. Hitherto mental health has been underfunded and part of Ms Doyle-Price’s job will be to change that. Ensuring police cells are no longer used for people with mental health problems will be another of her priorities.
The appointment of a minister to this new brief came on top of the earlier appointment of Tracey Crouch as minister for loneliness. That there might be a link between loneliness and suicide in some people’s lives is obvious.
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 estimates that there are over 9 million adults in this country who are often or always lonely, and cases are widespread across all sections of society.
Action for Children reports that 43 per cent of the 17 to 25-year-olds using their services have experienced problems with loneliness.
People with disabilities and more than one in three people over 75 also experience loneliness.
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 this social problem.
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 quoted Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life as one of the most popular current examples.
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. The Good Samaritan really does still have a role to play.