The Public Health Agency (PHA) says it values the Lifeline suicide prevention service “highly” after Londonderry MLA Maeve McLaughlin expressed concern proposed changes to it could negatively affect vulnerable people.
In a statement in response to claims the service could become fragmented as a result of the proposed shake-up, the public health body said: “The Lifeline crisis response service is highly valued by the PHA and is a key priority as it provides essential support to people at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.
“To ensure the best possible service for the people of Northern Ireland, the PHA is currently holding a 12 week consultation on the future of the Lifeline service to ensure that it best meets the needs of people who will require its support over coming years, and to make it as effective and responsive as possible. The proposals in the consultation were informed by views expressed during a pre-consultation exercise in 2014.
“The consultation proposals would maintain the 24 hour, seven days a week telephone helpline provided by staff who are skilled and qualified in talking to people in crisis.
“The telephone helpline operators would require professional skills and qualifications in listening and in assessing the risk of suicide. They would also have knowledge of the range of support services available to ensure that callers are directed to the most appropriate service for their needs.
“For callers at higher risk, the helpline staff would directly arrange further care through to emergency mental health services. For some lower risk patients, follow up through primary care, or community support may be more appropriate.
“In the consultation, the PHA is proposing that the telephone helpline element of the Lifeline service be placed under the management of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).
“Having the helpline managed by the Ambulance Service would strengthen links with other emergency services. The service would be fully integrated with existing community, voluntary and statutory services for people in crisis to enable an immediate and appropriate response for people at risk.
“If necessary, the helpline could also arrange an immediate handover to ambulance services for callers who are actively suicidal. In a time of crisis, every second counts, so this arrangement could prove vital in saving lives. Under the proposals, follow-on support services would continue to be offered if needed and would be enhanced with complementary therapies and local face-to-face immediate support.
“The proposals also include an increase in the number of counselling sessions by up to 27 per cent, a new face-to-face support service for those in immediate need, and new complementary therapy sessions to help people to engage in services and recover.
“The consultation proposals therefore aim to keep the best elements of the current service and expand the overall level of services available.
“Lifeline is an essential service and forms an important element of the PHA’s work with many partners to reduce the risk of suicide. The agency recognises that there will be a range of views on the proposals and we look forward to hearing from as many interested parties as possible during the public consultation.
“There are also a number of public information workshops currently being undertaken throughout Northern Ireland where people can find out more about the proposals and raise any questions they may have.
“Details of the public consultation and proposed new Lifeline service are available on the PHA’s website at www.bit.ly/llconsult
“The closing date for responses to the consultation is November 19, 2015 at 1pm.”