When he lost his beloved son two years ago to suicide, Steve Mallen, Founder of the MindEd Trust, was driven towards igniting a reform in the mental health sector. He talks to us about the Zero Suicide Alliance and how he got involved personally in the initiative.

How did the concept of the Zero Suicide Alliance come about?

The Zero Suicide paradigm recognises some fundamental truths:

In recent years there has been an explosion in mental health awareness across society, the media and the political arena and this is starting to destroy the stigma and prejudice which surround mental illness. At the same time, multiple initiatives, practices and protocols have been introduced right across the health system in many localities. This has been accompanied by an incredible proliferation of local enterprises, charities, self-help organisations, community groups, specialised services and social entrepreneurs which are all focused on mental illness and suicide reduction, typically at a localised level.

The has created a positive, but incredibly diverse and fragmented mental health landscape wherein there are myriad examples of evidence based best practice within the public health sector, communities, the charitable sector and professional services.

Zero Suicide, as a philosophy and system, originated in the US. The Zero Suicide Alliance embraces the key principles of the US model, translates these into a UK context and then expands the overall vision. It has been said that the UK may possess one of the best mental health systems in the world. Unfortunately, owing to a decentralised healthcare model and extreme fragmentation at local level, that system is not all in the same place. Put simply, if we combined the very best aspects of mental health education, public health, third sector resources, emergency services, primary care, private enterprise and secondary care from across the country and integrated these across localities into a coherent system, we will effect a rapid and dramatic improvement in the nation’s mental health and a reduction in the suicide rate.

The core vision for the Zero Suicide Alliance is thus founded on shared best practice and system integration at local level, taking the very best of what the system already offers and applying it everywhere.

Crucially, this includes not just healthcare organisations, but also emergency services, public health, the workplace, the school, system, the charitable sector, the commercial market, family organisations and community groups. This might be described as self-assembly co-production as all stakeholders across an area come together behind a common objective and operating philosophy.

A key objective of the Alliance is give the NHS less to do by preventing people reaching crisis, whilst simultaneously reaching out to those who are experiencing mental trauma but do not presently access care and support services. To achieve this, we need to redefine the “frontline” with regard to mental illness. The frontline is no longer restricted to the GPs, mental health nurses, social workers and psychiatrists. Under the Zero Suicide paradigm, the frontline expands to include teachers, school counsellors, work colleagues, emergency service personnel, community leaders, parents and all those connected with the care and support of those experiencing trauma or who are at risk of doing so.

A mentally literate society, open to constructive dialogue about mental illness and suicide will save lives.

Would you like to explain why you got involved with this initiative?

When I lost my beloved son two years ago to suicide, people suggested that his death was a “tragic accident” as they tried to assuage my grief and utter devastation. His death was not an accident. He was afflicted by a terrible disease without any apparent trigger. A disease from which he could so easily and readily have been cured were it not for the awful stigma surrounding mental illness and the parlous state of the mental healthcare system in this country.

In exhaustively researching the mental health sector, it rapidly became apparent that not only was my son’s death not an accident, it was also far from an isolated incident. Similar, avoidable tragedies occur every day and, as we know, suicide is now the largest cause of death amongst young people. More than three times as many people are lost to suicide each year than are killed in road accidents. Mental illness and suicide is one the greatest social and health challenges facing our country and this underpins my own drive for reform.

The Zero Suicide Alliance aims to effect rapid and profound change by restructuring the mental health sector from within, propelled by best practice and its leading exponents. The mental health issue is complex and intractable. However, laser-sighted on the frontline, we should refuse to accept notions of “next parliament”, “next decade” and “next generation” when it comes to improvement. We can and will save lives and reduce misery quickly if the Alliance, with a modest funding base, attains its vision.

We believe that a 5-10% per annum reduction in the national suicide rate is achievable in each of the next five years.