Inside England’s ‘suicide capital’ where record numbers take their own lives

It's a town with a proud tradition in glassmaking and mining and home to one of the country's most famous sports teams.

But St Helens has long been in the midst of a mental health crisis and has now been dubbed the 'suicide capital’ of England.

Figures obtained by Mirror Online for our Town 2020 series reveal it has the highest rate of suicide in the country with 17.9 deaths per every 100,000 people.

Locals say the high rates are due to a lack of emergency mental health services as well as general aura of “hopelessness” in the town.

The office of Labour MP Marie Rimmer sees constituents struggling with their mental health on a regular basis.

One man was so distressed that he said he "felt like throwing petrol on himself and setting himself on fire".

Shockingly, the manager of a homeless charity in the town told Mirror Online that it loses one service user every month to suicide.

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St Helens – famous for its rugby league team – was historically an industrial town known for mining and glassmaking as far back as the 18th Century.

The cotton and linen industries also boomed in the town, as did copper smelting.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, the industries went into a major decline and by 1992 all of the mines had closed.

With high levels of deprivation, obesity and ‘in-work’ poverty, many locals feel much more needs to be done by the council and central government to regenerate the once booming town.

'More money needs to be spent in the town'

Local man Rob Connick, 62, said: "It’s a depressing place when there’s no work. St Helens has one of the highest rates of suicide.

“It’s just despair, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a shame but there needs to be more money spent in the town, to get outsiders in and maybe things will improve.”

It's a sentiment shared by mum Susan Jones, 52,  who says: “There’s nothing left, everywhere just keeps leaving, there’s nothing here, it looks derelict.

“It’s really neglected, if we want to go anywhere, we go to Liverpool. Even pubs and that are all a bit run down.

“I don’t think there’s enough job opportunities for people, it’s all part-time or they’re all in warehouses miles away.

“My daughter has been lucky, she’s had job after job but she gets depressed. I think it’s something the young ones struggle with, I don’t know why because she’s got everything but she gets so depressed. "

Joan, 71, struggles to hold back tears as she recalls how her son had access to little or no support when he suffered from depression.

“My own son had mental health issues, he’s passed away since of a massive heart attack. He did suffer from deep depression from time to time, really black and there was no help there for him," she explains.

“It was ‘give him these tablets’ but there was nothing there to back him up and I think that’s a big issue. There’s not enough support for young people with mental health issues. 

“My son really suffered with it, it was heartbreaking to watch him suffer.”

'Since the pits went the town has become run down'

Local volunteer Nick Dyer, who works with the homeless charity Teardrops, says there’s a sense of decline across the town and people are really struggling.

He says: “Since the pits went and Pilkington downsized, the town as become really run down.

“There’s nothing for kids to do, people are going outside the town to shop, and there’s serious problems with mental health and homelessness.”

As the manager of the Teardrops Hub, Nick sees people from all walks of life and says they increasingly have people coming to them for help with issues like housing and Universal Credit .

“We see between 50 and 60 people a night, we put on some food, people can sit and have a chat or speak to us if they need anything.” 

Nick says they estimate that they lose one service user every month to suicide.

Teardrops in St Helens town centre is an incredible facility with a restaurant-standard kitchen, hairdressing facilities, computers, and a clothes section where service users can take what they need free of charge. 

Breakfast is provided every day while the night cafe opens four nights a week. 

Other services include help with Under 1 Roof, PIP and Universal Credit applications, resettlement support and emergency food packs. 

“This is a safe space for people to come and get some support. I’d say around 90% of the people we help, whether homeless or not, suffer from mental health problems,” Nick explains. 

“Both myself and Denise, the CEO, are trained in suicide first aid. I’ve often sat in A&E for hours with some of our service users who are suicidal. It takes hours for them to be seen and there’s no follow-up help because they don’t have an address.”

Denise adds: “I once had to talk someone down off the top of a multi-storey car park as they threatened to throw themselves off. We see a lot in this job and we do our best to help people. We’re entirely funded by the public, we get no money off the council.” 

But volunteers and campaigners say there’s only so much that can be done without the urgent provision of emergency mental health services. 

'It feels like there's no help'

Service user Peter Taylforth, 67, bravely told of how he tried to take his own life after ending up homeless following the break down of his relationship.

He said: “When it comes to mental health, you don’t know when it’s going to hit you.

“It sneaks up behind you and you think you can cope but next thing it’s got you by the throat. "

Peter told Mirror Online how he tried to kill himself but was "found with five minutes to go".

“It feels like there’s no help," he said. "The only thing that helped me was my faith.

“Everybody on the streets is mentally ill. I know people who’ve hanged themselves.

“It has the biggest suicide rate in the country, the place is rife with drugs and alcohol because there’s no work. 

“There’s shops closing down in the town centre all the time, loads of jobs have gone, it’s a dying town.”

Suicide intervention trainer Andrea Newton believes a lot more needs to be done to tackle the problem as the number of deaths have remained the same over the past few years. 

She also highlights the sense of apathy in the town and claims businesses and the council alike are slow to take her up on the offer of free training for staff. 

“When you compare St Helens to other towns in the vicinity, it just doesn’t make sense,” she said. 

“We’ve got the highest number but in theory we’ve got the same support services as nearby towns.

“It’s something we really need to be taking seriously. 

'It's a good job we have a damn good rugby team'

“The town had a history of mining, Pilkington glass works, the Beechams industry, none of those industries are still prevalent and you only have to walk through the town centre to see all the shops that are boarded up. 

“Big name retailers have moved out. If you compare it to the nearby town of Warrington which is absolutely thriving and they’ve got loads of investment going on – St Helens is just the poor relation.

“It’s a good job that we’ve got a damn good rugby team, otherwise we’d have nothing to be hopeful about.” 

Chrysalis for Change is a mental health charity based in St Helens which provide a range of support service for adult women.

Sian Thomas, the charity's manager, says they "see women from all walks of life with a huge range of issues from anxiety and depression, to women who have experienced significant trauma and have multiple, complex issues".

They provide a range of services including one-to-one counselling, stress and anxiety management Courses, a Journey Through Grief Programme to support women who have lost a significant adult, Domestic Abuse Support Group and a Therapeutic Arts & Crafts Group.

Sian says a "significant number of our service users report having suicidal thoughts and feelings" but are able to manage these when they engage with the charity's services.

"We regularly receive comments from service users who feel our services are 'life-saving' and we want as many women as possible to have the opportunity to change their lives in the same way," she said.

Sian says the rates of suicide in St Helens are so high because of a multitude of reasons.

"St Helens has significant problems including deprivation and poverty, high rates of unemployment, high numbers of people on long-term sickness, low pay and high levels of domestic abuse," she explains.

"In addition to these generic factors, we have also picked up in our work a noticeable sense of demoralisation. People have often lost hope of achieving something better than previous generations and have developed a sense of apathy about what life is like in this town.

"We aim to change that view and show people that change is most definitely possible, and achievable, especially if we all work together."

The charity is currently in the process of moving to a larger premises as they "can't manage the huge demand for our services".

What is being done to change things?

The council has created new roles and assigned a particular area to six Labour councillors: poverty, climate change, mental health, homelessness, women and equalities and workers’ rights.

Local councillor Paul Lynch has been tasked with supporting the council on suicide prevention and improving mental health. 

He says the council has undertaken a number of campaigns and believe this has caused the suicide rates to drop slightly. 

“The town has seen its industrial heart impacted by a changing global market and manufacturing processes which have played a part in the current landscape of the town. That has meant worklessness, reduced financial support and in-work poverty rates in the town are an issue. This coupled with Tory austerity and unfair cuts forced on us by the Conservative government is having a detrimental effect on the people of St Helens.

Council funding cut by 25.36% since 2010

  • Highest rate of suicide of towns in England with 17.9 suicides per every 100,000 people
  • At 180 admissions per 100,000 population aged 0-17 years, St Helens has the highest rate of admissions due to mental health problems in Merseyside and is the 3rd highest in England.
  • Council funding cut by 25.36% since 2010
  • 71.3% residents are obese
  • At a rate of 121 children per 10,000 of the under-18 population, St Helens has a considerably higher rate of children looked after by the authority than comparable regional and national averages. The rate of children in need in St Helens in early 2019 is 489.1 per 10,000 children (1,790 cases open to Children's Social Care services); a higher rate of children in need than the North West and England
  • Low pay can be a key contributor to poverty and ‘in-work’ poverty is a growing issue. Almost 31% of jobs in St. Helens are paid less than the Living Wage Foundation living wage, much higher than the national average of 23%

“We are trying our best with what we have, working with partners, seizing opportunities and have a robust programme in place to help our residents be more resilient and support those who find themselves in times of crisis, but there is no one quick fix as the reasons for someone to take their own life are complex and different in every case.

“We have established a Suicide Prevention Partnership, a range of training sessions from mental health first aiders who are there to help signpost people to support through to Zerosuicide Alliance training, safer care through working with our health partners and bereavement support for those affected by suicide.

“Local analysis suggests that this work is already making an impact and we expect to see a fall in our suicide rates. But the figure is still too high, and we are determined to continue this work to help reduce the impact not just on those in crisis but also their friends and family who also need our support.”

A spokeswoman for St Helens council said: “We are committed to making a real difference to people of St Helens and working in a truly collaborative approach with our partners and the community to transform people’s lives.

“Much of the funding for mental health support lies with our partners in health but by working together through our Suicide Prevention Partnership we are trying to maximise the impact of our work.

“We have a robust programme in place to help our residents be more resilient and support those who find themselves in times of crisis, but there is no one quick fix because there are complex and different reasons in every case for someone to take their own life.

“We run a range of training sessions from mental health first aiders who are there to help signpost people to support through to Zerosuicide Alliance training, safer care through working with our health partners and bereavement support for those affected by suicide.

“Local analysis suggests that this work is already making an impact and we expect to see a fall in our suicide rates. But the figure is still too high and we are determined to reduce the impact not just on those in crisis but also their friends and family who also need our support. We have a collective ambition as a town – No More Suicide.

“Similar approaches to working with partners and our communities are also working towards tackling obesity levels in St Helens. Obesity statistics put us among the highest in the North West for both children and adults but we are working to also reduce these rates.

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