Polish lawyers have expressed concerns that plans for a national register of people who have attempted suicide could “violate fundamental rights”, reports Rzeczpospolita.
They warn that the database, which would be set up in order to monitor and prevent future suicide attempts among those most at risk, could raise privacy issues, possibly compromising an individual’s dignity and family life. Experts also suggest this could add an extra burden to Poland’s already troubled and budget-starved mental health care system.
The resolution to work on the register was adopted on 10 April by a team working on suicide and depression prevention at the public health council of the health ministry.
They argue that it is a necessary measure because data on the mental health of newly admitted patients is often difficult to access, with doctors left unable to make quick assessments of the risk of suicide. This poses an even larger threat in patients with a history of mental health illness.
“As shown in scientific studies, but also the experience of psychiatrists, after an attempted suicide a person has an increased risk of making another attempt – and this can be a successful one,” Professor Piotr Gałecki, a national consultant in psychiatry, told Rzeczpospolita.
“If doctors knew about the earlier suicide attempts, they would most likely keep the patient in hospital for treatment, saving their life.”
But lawyers warn that the creation of a register of patients may present a privacy risk. The ministerial team later clarified that they do not believe the term “register” to be the most appropriate name for a collection of such sensitive data.
“It would be a public register – in addition to having a great potential for violating fundamental rights, especially for the protection of personal data, privacy, intimacy, dignity and family life,” said lawyer Paweł Litwiński, quoted by Rzeczpospolita.
According to Litwiński, extensive analysis should take place before such information is collected and made available. “It is necessary to prove that a register of suicide attempts would make it possible to save patients who are released from hospital from suicide,” he said.
Speaking to Wysokie Obcasy, psychiatrist Aleksandra Krasowska also expressed her scepticism at the plans.
“An attempted suicide is an act that can have very complex grounds,” she explains. “Information taken out of context may, in my opinion, worsen the patient’s situation instead of improving their safety. I do not know of any research indicating that the use of such registers improves patient safety.”
Krasowska added that the issue of retrieving data on patients’ past experiences should not be solved “at the expense of medical confidentiality”.
“The fact that you have attempted suicide in the past does not mean that, at any given time, any person should be subjected to any actions, especially being forced to stay in a hospital, if there is no indication of suicide at that time,” she continued. Krasowska believes that instead the government should increase funding of the mental health care sector and improve access to psychiatrists.
In 2019, 5,255 people took their own lives in Poland, reports Rzeczpospolita, although experts claim that the real number of suicide attempts may be 10-15 times higher. The overwhelming majority – nearly 4,500 – were men, who are globally more likely to die by suicide than women. Recent Polish data also suggests that those most at risk include married people.
Psychiatrists also warn there may be increased numbers of people suffering from mental health illnesses in months to come, as the financial and emotional toll of the pandemic becomes more apparent.
Gałecki says this demonstrates the need for a national database of those who have previously attempted suicide. But he adds that it “should only be made available to certain persons or services directly involved in saving a person’s life or improving their health”, and could be protected with safeguarding. Its successful implementation, he says, would allow more effective care to be given to those in need in future.
The mental health care sector in Poland is in crisis, beset by years of insufficient monetary support, short staffing and an endemic stigma towards mental health illnesses.
With nine psychiatrists per 100,000 Poles, and chronic underfunding – the country spends just 3.7% of the entire amount available to its National Health Service on funding mental health care – patients have often been left waiting weeks or even months for appropriate help.
However, with increasing numbers suffering from mental health illnesses, grassroots initiatives have been springing up across Poland to shoulder some of the burden, particularly during the time of coronavirus. Residents of Warsaw’s Śródmieście district were able to make use of a specially designed helpline to support those thinking about suicide during lockdown, reports Gazeta Wyborcza, the first local government in Poland to launch such a service.
Meanwhile, another helpline, “Telefon Pogadania“, was set up in April, allowing those feeling lonely to phone in and have a normal human conversation.
Main image credit: Piqsels