Norwich link between suicide and chronic illness

The suffering of people whose chronic and terminal illnesses are so severe that they take their own lives has been laid bare in a new report which found that they account for almost one in 10 suicide cases seen by Norwich's coroner.

While the link between mental illness and suicide is well documented, the new research adds to a growing body of evidence that physical ill health is also a major factor behind suicides.

In one local case, an elderly man, who took an overdose because he had chronic leg problems that were causing him considerable pain, wrote in his suicide note: 'I want to be able to control when I die and be spared the indignity.'

In May this year, Norfolk coroner William Armstong gave permission for researchers to examine his district's suicide records for a five-year period from May 2006 to December 2010. The results revealed that 25 sucides, out of a total 259 – 9.7pc – involved a person with a diagnosed terminal or chronic illness.

In 44pc of these 25 cases, the deceased person had a condition that was progressive and expected to worsen.

Medical conditions identified in the inquest records included Parkinson's disease, motor neurone disease, ME, chronic arthritis, Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's and cancer.

The new report – The Truth About Suicide – was put together by researchers from the national think-tank Demos and said this hidden trend was being neglected.

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Its author, Louise Bazalgette, said the 'lack of attention paid to people with terminal or chronic illness committing suicide is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the government and health services'.

Mr Armstrong said: 'The prediction and prevention of suicide is a complex subject because often, a number of factors are involved. This report provides hard objective evidence that people suffering from chronic and terminal illness are at greater risk of taking their own lives.

'Health professionals and others need to pay attention to this group of people to try to make sure they are given as much help and support as possible. But it must be remembered that there are also lots of people with chronic and terminal illness who have no wish to take their lives and would be offended to be thought of as being at risk of suicide.'

The report recommends that as part of the coalition government's ongoing consultation on preventing suicide, it should consider making local suicide audits compulsory and coroners' duty to share information should be formalised.

Linda Hillman, consultant in Public Health for Mental Health services at NHS Norfolk, said: 'Preventing suicide in our area is a key public health priority. We already regularly audit local suicides. We look in detail at the proportion of our residents for whom suicide has been linked to physical and chronic illness and feed back to all GPs to highlight the risks and prevent further cases.

'We will be using the new Government Consultation on Preventing Suicide in England and the Demos work published today to ensure our suicide work in Norfolk is up to date and as effective as possible.'

Samaritans is available for anyone in any type of distress on 08457 90 90 90 in the UK.