MPs have called on the UK Government to do more to address the disproportionate risk of suicide among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Scottish National Party MP Dr Lisa Cameron told fellow MPs that a 2016 Swedish study found people with ASD were nine times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population, and that recent research indicates that people with ASD also account for a harrowing proportion of suicides in the UK.
Speaking at the start of the 90-minutethe MP, who is also a NHS consultant working with clients who have mental health problems and learning difficulties, said:
There is a 16-year gap in life expectancy between people with autistic spectrum disorder and the general population. To put it all very bluntly, people with autistic spectrum disorder are 28 times more likely to consider suicide than the average population —28 times.
The statistics make one thing abundantly clear: what we are doing now to support people with autistic spectrum disorder is not working and is not enough. Research shows that almost seven in 10 people with autistic spectrum disorder experience mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
Services must be in place to ensure that people are cared for holistically. We have to meet all their clinical needs, which may mean their autism or their learning difficulties, but they will almost certainly have mental health issues. Quite frankly, we do not have services in place today that take account of the complexity of such needs.
Dr Cameron said that more needs to be done to improve the service offered by general practitioners (GPs) in particular, as they are often the first point of call for people with mental health problems.
We need training to raise GP awareness. Access needs to be easier. We need to ensure that GPs know who on their register has a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder.
If an autistic person bypasses the GP and goes straight to mental health services, they may face unprecedented waiting times or they may simply be refused treatment. When individuals do attend services, they may find that they are discharged without any follow-up.
At the Health Committee last week, we heard how a young autistic boy was turned away by child and adolescent mental health services [CAMHS] four times, despite feeling suicidal, because he had not yet attempted to take his own life. Things have hit crisis point, and we need to ensure that we engage in prevention.
When someone attempts to take their own life should not be the point at which they receive treatment. We need early intervention to pinpoint the symptoms of difficulty and where we should be aiming the treatment.
MPs from all parties backed her proposals and highlighted their own concerns over lengthy waiting times for diagnosis, the absence of suitable therapeutic approaches, poor ASD awareness in education and health, and the lack of clearly defined mental health pathways.
At the end of the debate it was resolved:
That this House has considered the support available for autistic people experiencing mental health problems; calls on the Government to ensure that the NICE [National Institute for Clinical Excellence]-recommended indicator for autism in GP registers is included in the Quality and Outcomes Framework; and further calls on the Government to ensure NHS England works closely with the autism community to develop effective and research-based mental health pathways.
The Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) is the annual reward and incentive programme detailing GP practice achievement results. It rewards practices for the provision of quality care and helps standardise improvement in the delivery of primary medical services.
It is a voluntary process for all GP surgeries in England and was introduced as part of the GP contract in 2004. The indicators for the QOF change annually.