Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Carol Monaghan Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 623390, relating to suicide prevention and the national curriculum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. First, I thank the petitioners—the 3 Dads Walking—for their brilliant campaign; I know that they are here today. I also thank Papyrus, the charity leading the prevention of young suicide in the UK, for its work and the support it has given to 3 Dads Walking. This is something that those dads never thought they would be involved with, or even want to be, but sadly, each of them, along with their families, has suffered immensely through the loss of their daughters. If anything good can come out of three such tragedies, we in this place must do all we can to help.

I will speak about the three dads and their daughters. First, there is Tim and his daughter Emily from Norfolk. Emily was 19 and took her life in March 2020. She was the life and soul of every room, meeting and party—a free spirit and a talented artist. She had struggled for some time and a late diagnosis of autism had not helped. She could not cope with life under lockdown and attempted to take her life. She sadly died five days later.

Secondly, there is Andy and his daughter Sophie from Cumbria. Sophie took her life just before Christmas 2018. She was 29. She was an open, happy young lady with a wide circle of friends. She brought a smile and a sense of fun to everyone she met. No one had an inkling that she was feeling suicidal—everyone said,

“she seemed like ‘normal’ Sophie.”

If she had felt able to share her emotions, everyone would have helped, but sadly, she did not.

Thirdly, there is Mike and his daughter Beth from south Manchester. Beth was 17 and she died in March 2020. She was a leader, including being the head girl at her primary school. She was outgoing, independent and an artist with a record contract. Her dad Mike says:

“Not one single person…saw this coming.”

If she had only known about the many charities, maybe she would still be alive. Those are three tragic stories and three brave dads.

Those three brave dads came together to set off on walks to raise more than £1 million for Papyrus and its HopelineUK helpline and text service, which provide much-needed support for our young people. More importantly, they have raised awareness of a subject that sadly affects many families across the country.

I am fortunate to be able to stand and lead debates in this place, and I hope that many are watching. When leading such debates, I like to not only ask the Government what the petitioners have requested, which I will come on to, but speak directly to the public. Hopefully, I can pass on information that I have learned in my research and in my position as a Member of Parliament. I will therefore start by sharing some guidance on talking about this subject.

The first message is never to say “commit” when speaking of suicide. That is an out-of-date term for people taking their own lives, and one that we should refrain from using. People do not commit a crime when they take their own life. They are obviously in a place of deep unhappiness, and their memory should not be tarnished by poor language. They took their own life or they died by suicide. Let us all try to remember that today.

There are many great charities working hard to end suicide. As well as Papyrus, there are the Samaritans, James’ Place, Mind, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, Mates in Mind, Baton of Hope and many others that do great work in this field. We should pay tribute to them all in this place.

Helpfully, Samaritans has produced some basic rules for discussing or reporting suicide, and we should all take note. The rules include: not reporting the method or sensationalising the act; not referring to a site or a location; and avoiding an excessive amount of coverage and/or speculation in the media or on social media. Those are really helpful tips that might just prevent someone from taking their life. I recommend the information on the Samaritans website and also its excellent Small Talk Saves Lives campaign.

Let me now look at what Andy, Tim and Mike, Papyrus and the 160,000 people who signed the petition are asking for. It is to ensure that suicide and self-harm awareness is included in the national curriculum, specifically in the relationship, sex and health education curriculum, and that it should be age appropriate. Obviously, all three dads have a specific interest because they have each suffered their own individual tragic loss. However, their main aim is to help other families and young people, and to stop the biggest single killer of our young people.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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I thank the hon. Member for giving way and he is making a very important speech about this subject, which is not talked about often enough. Some of my constituents got in touch with me about their son, Peter, who sadly took his own life in 2012. They are clear that there has to be more information about suicide and suicide prevention in schools. I know that Scotland has a different curriculum to England, but this is something that we can work on on a cross-party basis to achieve across the UK.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and I offer my condolences to Peter’s family. As she said, this greater awareness is something that we want across the entire UK.

As I was saying, suicide is the single biggest killer of young people in Britain. The figures are very difficult to swallow. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that between April 2020 and March 2021 157 young boys and 72 young girls between the ages of 10 and 19 took their own life. That cannot be right, can it?

At least until my time in this place began, I was one of the many people who thought that talking about self-harm and suicide was not a good idea; I thought that putting thoughts into young people’s minds by discussing the issue openly would only make things worse. However, the many professionals and charities I have spoken to disagree, and a literature review conducted by Cambridge University showed that there is no research to prove that that idea about putting thoughts into young people’s minds about suicide was true. Children are exposed to so much on their phones that they need the tools to help them to deal with the subject. An appropriate curriculum, taught well, could do just that. However, we also need to think and act maturely and responsibly on this issue. If we find that, by discussing this issue, an unintended consequence is that suicide rates among young people increase, we must be prepared to think again.

The professionals who I have spoken to are all agreed that this subject should be included in the curriculum. They also agreed that year 7 and upwards was the best time to start. Furthermore, they agreed that it should not be discussed just in one year of secondary school, which I believe some schools already do, but should form part of each academic year for 11 to 12-year-olds upwards. For those children who are younger, this subject should not necessarily be broached. However, the message to them should be that they have the right to be, and to feel, safe. There should be no secrets and nothing should be kept from parents, on this matter or any other.

The professionals said that ideally this subject should be taught by external providers who are specialists in it and that after each session there should be a follow-up session to talk to any children who are concerned. They also said that both parents and teachers should be trained in how to deal with children who were struggling; in how to better spot any signs that something might be wrong; and in being proactive in starting conversations. We cannot place the responsibility on the shoulders of our young boys and girls to come forward and talk. It is our responsibility—in fact, our duty—to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. Mental health first aid training might be one way of achieving that.

I have concerns about bringing external providers into schools, as I have seen some highly inappropriate content on other subjects within RSHE, and parents are kept in the dark about what is being taught. If we are to use such providers, the content must be shared with parents. If a parent has concerns, their voice should be respected. I am sure the Government will take that on board.

Last week, I was delighted to receive a letter for the 3 Dads and I from the Secretary of State for Education. It said that the Government will include suicide prevention as a key priority area in their forthcoming review of RSHE. I greatly welcome that move; it is a real step forward. I am hopeful of a good debate today where we all have one aim: stopping our children and young people taking their own lives. Their lives are so precious. As a dad, my children are my life and my greatest joy; I cannot think of anything worse than losing them. I ask the Minister to do what we can to stop this. The Government are good, and they can—and do—do good things. Let this be the next good thing they do.