STAFF who work for a North-East charity have had to be trained to deal with suicidal callers, after an increase in calls from people in severe mental distress because of benefit cuts.

Lyn Boyd, chief executive of the Mental Health North East charity, said: "Over Christmas I was contacted personally by a service user who was feeling suicidal because of an impending Employment and Support Allowance review.

"We have seen an increase in calls to our office from people experiencing severe mental distress, over fears that they may lose vital benefits such as ESA, which provide a lifeline to people who are unable to work due to debilitating mental health problems.

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"Because of the increase in distress calls MHNE has made it a priority that all staff are better equipped to offer support to callers."

Ms Boyd said all MHNE staff are now trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills, provided by Chester-Le-Street and Durham City Mind.

Based in Birtley, County Durham, MHNE is a consortium of voluntary sector organisations working with people suffering mental distress.

Following reports last week showing a significant increase in the number of people in the North-East taking their own lives last year, MHNE is calling for North-East organisations, including local authorities, voluntary and charitable groups and private sector organisations to press the Government to look at the specific factors affecting the North-East and take action to prevent further increases in suicides in this area.

The North-East had the highest suicide rate in the country in 2011. A total of 218 men took their own lives in that year as well as 55 women.