A RADICAL overhaul of mental health services in Highland is needed to avert many more suicides, according to cross-party politicians.
Former Tory health spokeswoman Mary Scanlon has launched an unprecedented attack on the Highlands’ mental health service, branding it "cold, callous and cruel" towards patients.
Serving politicians weighed in, blaming allegedly poor management for failing to intervene to dent the region’s high suicide rate.
A charity created to combat suicide has responded, accusing the Conservatives of exacerbating the crisis by "systematically savaging NHS budgets".
Health chiefs cited a national shortage of psychiatrists and mental health nurses but insisted staff had "gone the extra mile" to ensure patients get suitable care.
The NHS recorded almost 4500 suicides in Scotland between 2009 and 2014.
Ron Williamson of Inverness charity Mikeysline, whose mission is to avert suicides, has learned that in the first half of this year, there were 27 Highland suicides.
The region has the second highest rate per head of population after Shetland – 309 for the six-year period.
Mental health issues have repeatedly made headlines in recent days.
Last month, Inverness priest Fr James Bell accused health chiefs of failing to get a grip.
A Mental Welfare Commission report last week found serious failings regarding the treatment of a man with a personality disorder who took his own life shortly after being discharged from a Highland psychiatric unit.
NHS Highland acknowledged the report saying it would "act" on the findings.
Referencing the report, Mrs Scanlon said: "In 17 years, I spoke to 34 families who lost people to suicide. Not all had been in touch with mental health services but for those who had, they got the same cold, callous, cruel treatment that this gentleman got.
"At one point, I felt patients were being treated with spite rather than kindness. There’s a culture that won’t change without new, compassionate, management."
The issue of mental health is now the priority for city SNP councillor Richard Laird.
"Without change more people will die unnecessarily and there’ll be more attempts at suicide," he said.
"NHS Highland is failing mentally ill people in the north. It doesn’t treat people with the same esteem as it does physical illness. Its entire approach must change."
Mikeysline founder Ron Williamson accused Mrs Scanlon of being a member of a government "that has systematically savaged Scottish NHS budgets over the last 10 years".
He said: "To demonise the service in this way serves only to demoralise the hundreds of caring, dedicated staff doing their best under the most difficult of economic circumstances."
Conservative MSP Ed Mountain defended Mrs Scanlon as a "fearless champion of health issues" and claimed that "poor leadership, lacking in compassion" was a "recurring theme across the delivery of health care in the Highlands".
Labour MSP David Stewart praised the "tireless work" of staff and cited funding cuts and a dearth of qualified specialists.
On Tuesday, the Scottish Government confirmed an extra £500,000 in funding to improve first response mental health services.
It will support people who need unscheduled care but do not require to contact the emergency services.
Anyone needing urgent help can call Mikeysline on 07779 303 303.