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Information sharing and suicide prevention

Consensus statement

The suicide prevention strategy for England places a new emphasis on families bereaved or affected by suicide. This aims to improve information and support for families who are concerned about a relative who may be at risk of suicide and to better support those who have been bereaved by suicide.

We have heard from a number of families bereaved by suicide about their experiences with services, and issues of confidentiality have been a recurring theme. They have repeatedly raised concerns that practitioners can seem reluctant to take information from families and friends or give them information about a person’s suicide risk.

The Department of Health has asked for our help to address these concerns, and has coordinated the preparation of this statement and covering note.

Confidentiality, consent and capacity are all issues which have rightly received a great deal of careful attention over the years. It is clear that, where the common law duty of confidentiality applies, practitioners will be under a duty to respect a person’s refusal to consent to disclosure of their suicide risk, if the person has capacity and they do not pose a risk to anyone but themselves.

This statement does not change practitioners’ current legal duties of confidentiality in respect of the people they are caring for. It is designed to promote greater sharing of information within the context of the relevant law, and to clarify that this is a matter of professional judgement for an individual practitioner providing care to an individual person.

This statement and covering note also do not attempt to reproduce the guidance available to practitioners from their own professional organisations. There will be specific considerations for health care professionals such as doctors and nurses, where the common law duty of confidentiality applies to a practitioner’s interactions with people as their patients. Where the duty does not apply practitioners will have more discretion about what information can be shared without consent. However, professional guidance will always make it clear that the reasons for doing so must be adequate.

The statement applies to adults in England. The situation for children and young people under the age of 18 differs, although the same duties of confidentiality apply when using, sharing or disclosing information about children and young people as about adults. Information can be shared about a child or young person where it is in the public interest to do so. In practice, this means that practitioners should disclose information to an appropriate person or authority if this is necessary to protect the child or young person from risk of death or serious harm. A decision can be made to share such information with the family and friends, and normally would be.

For brevity, “family and friends” is used throughout this document to include the person or people with whom the individual has a close emotional relationship.