Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Liz Twist Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

Most of all, I thank the 3 Dads Walking for everything they have done to raise awareness of suicide in young people. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mike, Andy and Tim. I am delighted that their petition has led to this debate being brought forward, with 160,000 signatures. That is truly amazing. There could not be a more fitting tribute to the lives of Beth, Sophie and Emily than the passion and dedication that their dads have shown. I also thank Papyrus for its support to the 3 Dads and for all its work to tackle young suicides.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, it has been an honour to meet so many inspiring people who, having lost a loved one to suicide, have dedicated so much time and energy to ensuring that other families do not have to go through the same thing. The 3 Dads is the club that no one wants to join, as they say. However, many people who have found themselves in it have carried out brilliant work in the face of great adversity. The Government must do everything they can to match their efforts.

Unfortunately, the issue is touching more and more families. Suicide has recently become the biggest killer of young people under 25. It is estimated that in an average week, four schoolchildren will take their own lives. Although young men are three times more likely to take their own lives than their female peers, the suicide rate for young women is now at its highest on record. We are getting better at tackling the stigma and talking about mental health, but suicide and self-harm is still a taboo subject. As we have heard, people are worried that by talking about suicide, they may say the wrong thing—or worse, encourage it. That is a particular fear when talking to children and young people about suicide.

Sadly, this issue is already in the lives of so many young people, as demonstrated by work carried out on online harms. In a recent Samaritans study with over 5,000 participants, over three quarters of them said they first saw self-harm content online before the age of 14. Several studies have suggested an association between suicidal ideation and accessing relevant content online. Better online safeguards are a must, but we must also equip our young people with the skills and knowledge to deal with the unique pressures that they currently face.

It has been my pleasure to work with the local organisation If U Care Share, which has been delivering suicide prevention workshops to school pupils across the north-east for over 10 years. The charity was founded by the family of Daniel O’Hare, who was just 19 when he took his own life in 2005. Its dedicated team, which includes Daniel’s brother Matthew, is primarily made up of young people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The team speak to primary and secondary school children about their own stories, and how the children can be open about their emotions and mental health. Research carried out by the charity found that 19% of young people would go to a friend if they needed help, compared to just 6% who would approach someone at their school.

Suicide prevention training equips pupils with the skills and confidence to help each other as well as themselves. If U Care Share is one of many fantastic voluntary organisations that are working with young people to prevent suicide, but currently those organisations are picking up the pieces left over from the incapacity of statutory services. They often rely on short-term grants to carry out their vital work.

I am delighted to be able to say that If U Care Share has just been awarded funding from the National Lottery to support its suicide bereavement multiple death response programme over four years. Multiple deaths refers to a situation where more deaths occur by suicide than is normally expected at a certain time or place—or both. That can sometimes be as a result of contagion, whereby one person’s suicide influences another to engage in suicidal behaviour. Such suicide clusters are a rare event, but schools can be a setting in which they occur.

We must do more to ensure that suicide prevention work is placed on a stable footing. Currently, all funding supporting local areas’ core prevention plans is set to cease in 2023-24. We need continued ring-fenced funding across three years to support local areas to deliver targeted, non-clinical support services to prevent suicide. That would allow local authorities to commission long-term services from our best organisations, and empower them to support the most at-risk groups.

We must also do more to ensure that children are able to access help when they reach out for it. NHS figures show that children suffering mental health crises spent more than 900,000 hours in A&E last year. Between July 2021 and July 2022, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services increased by 24%. It is still important that we work to prevent suicidal ideation in young people, and promote mental wellbeing. It is also important that we ensure there are systems in place to support them in the most acute crises.

Making suicide prevention an essential part of the curriculum is another step towards ensuring that statutory, long-term support is in place for our young people whenever they may need it. But it must be backed up by the funding to ensure that all school pupils are able to access those life-saving workshops, such as those delivered by If U Care Share, and many other organisations. It must take the form of sensitive and thought-out content, delivered by people with the experience to make it count. Crucially, it must be built in as part of the curriculum, as the petitioners request, so that every student is supported.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Member for her excellent speech, and particularly for the work she is doing as part of the APPG. On the comment that this is a cross-party issue, it has been mentioned that suicide sadly affects many families across the UK. My family is one of those, following the tragic suicide of my brother. Recently, I launched a campaign to have 100 people on Anglesey trained in mental health first aid. Does the hon. Member agree with me that it is absolutely vital that we talk about mental health, particularly with our young people, so we can give them the tools to speak about it and signpost them to the many fantastic organisations and charities that are there to support?

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I offer my condolences to her on the loss of her brother. I, too, have been affected by suicide, so have personal experience of that and know how important it is to share. I certainly agree that it is vital that people talk more about suicide, and about having difficult suicidal thoughts as well. We want to prevent suicide, rather than see it continue. I thank her for that.

To conclude, I want to share a message from Daniel’s family, who often say,

“We taught Daniel to tie his shoe laces, and how to cross the road safely—but we never spoke to him about how life can throw things at you that you need some help to deal with. It is not a sign of weakness to reach out for help.”

Just like Daniel’s family, our schools teach our young people all about road awareness, online safety and many other vital lessons necessary to keep them safe, but today one of the things that is most likely to take the lives of our young people is our young people themselves. By talking more openly about suicide, we can save more young lives and prevent families like Daniel’s, Beth’s, Sophie’s and Emily’s from going through unimaginable pain.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Debates such as this are illuminating, and I am sure hearing such stories will help those carrying out the review of the RHSE curriculum.

Teaching about mental health is only part of the story. Schools can play a vital role by providing safe, calm and supportive environments that promote good mental wellbeing and help prevent the onset of mental illness. We should not, however, expect teachers to act as mental health experts, nor to make a mental health diagnosis. Education staff are well placed to observe children day to day, and many schools provide excellent targeted support for pupils with mental wellbeing issues.

To help education settings implement effective whole-school or college approaches to mental health, we are funding all schools and colleges in England to train a senior mental health lead. Over 11,000 schools and colleges have already taken up that offer, including more than six in 10 state-funded secondary schools in England, and we have invested a further £10 million this year to ensure that up to two thirds of state-funded schools and colleges can benefit by April this year.

That is in addition to record funding for children and young people’s mental health support through the NHS long-term plan, which commits to increasing investment in mental health services by at least £2.3 billion a year, putting mental health on a par with physical health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) has been campaigning for. That means an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support by 2023-24.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of access to mental health services for young people. Despite significant extra funding, we know that too many young people must wait for too long before they are seen by a mental health professional. Last year, the NHS set out its plans to introduce new access and waiting time standards for mental health services. One of those standards is for children and young people to start to receive their care within four weeks of referral, but hopefully sooner than that.

As a result of the 2017 Green Paper “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision”, which is a very significant piece of work, more than 2.4 million children and young people now have access in schools and colleges to a mental health support team, which delivers evidence-based interventions for mild to moderate mental health issues; supports each school or college to introduce or develop its approach to promoting and supporting mental health; and advises and liaises with external specialist services to help children and young people to get the right support and stay in education.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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I am looking at the petition organised by 3 Dads Walking. The Minister has given us some very important information about mental health support in schools, but this is quite simple: it is about talking to young people about suicide prevention and knowing that it is okay for them to talk about their feelings. Will the Minister say how he will approach that specific point in the RSHE review?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The hon. Member makes an important point. That is a matter for the review. It needs to be carried out with thoroughness and speed, but we also need to consult experts on the issue, as well as talking to families and young people who have important experiences to convey to the review. I would not want to pre-empt that review with my own opinions. We want to ensure that it is a properly carried-out review; we will then get the best possible outcome from it, not just in this area but across the whole of the RSHE curriculum.