A SHARP rise in the number of suspected suicides across County Durham could be linked to the recession and the impact of Government cuts.

Though the circumstances behind the deaths – ten of which occurred last month – are yet to be revealed, one North-East councillor fears the region could be set to revisit the dark days of the Eighties as worries over jobs and homes become too much to bear.

Since June, a total of 15 deaths have come under the spotlight – four in Darlington and the rest in other areas of County Durham.

On average, authorities expect to come across only three to five “potential suicides” a month, which is why last month’s figures are so alarming.

This has led to the UK’s first rapid response programme being triggered – an initiative set up by health officials last year after an independent investigation was carried out into a suspected “cluster” of 21 deaths in east Durham.

The UK’s most senior suicide prevention expert, Malcolm Rae, carried out the inquiry last year and, while he said the deaths did not constitute a formal cluster, he noted a “vulnerability” in sections of the population in Easington.

That investigation was launched after concerns were raised by county councillor Charlie Walker, from Seaham, and he is now seeking answers to this latest increase.

“I am really, really concerned to the point of it making me feel sick,” he said. “We are way above the national average for suicides and there has been an increase. I am still trying to find out why.”

Councillor Walker said he was sure the recession, followed by the massive programme of public spending cuts, was driving people to take desperate measures.

“Some of the reasons are deprivation, debt and marital problems, but we also have to look at unemployment,” he said. “The direction we are heading as a country has contributed to this. I saw it after the mines closed down. We had young miners jumping off cliffs and I fear the same thing happening again.”

“A few weeks ago, a guy walked into a school field locally and hanged himself. The volume of young people taking their own lives is frightening.

You have to ask what is going on.”

Coun Walker welcomed the introduction of the early warning system.

A total of £750,000 has been pledged to improve the ability to rapidly identify surges in suicide numbers and implement prevention measures.

It is part of a the work involving local authorities, NHS County Durham and Darlington, Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, the police and the coroner’s office and will enable fast access to counselling through the development of “community responders”.

Initially the community responders scheme will be piloted in east Durham, but it could introduced elsewhere.

Brian Keys, North-East director of commissioning for mental health with NHS County Durham and Darlington, said the number of suspected suicides in the past seven weeks was “highly unusual”.

Because of the early warning system now in place “we are able to take immediate action to mitigate against any further risk in our communities,”

he added.

Health officials are also working with the Samaritans to ensure their suicide prevention campaign literature is widely available.

Bill Donnelly, director of the Durham branch of Samaritans, said: “In light of these tragic deaths in County Durham, we would urge anyone who is feeling distressed or who needs support to contact Samaritans.

“During these tough economic times, vulnerable people are at greater risk of suicide.

We know that those who are unemployed are two or three times more likely to die by suicide than people in employment and the fear of unemployment can also be bad for mental health and increase the risk of suicide.”

He urged people to call 0845- 790-9090, email jo@samari tans.org, or visit their local branch for confidential, nonjudgmental support.