Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Neil Hudson Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I thank you for affording me the opportunity to speak. It is a privilege to follow the other hon. Members, who made powerful speeches, and I thank the Petitions Committee for hosting the debate.

I pay personal tribute to the 3 Dads Walking—my constituent, Andy Airey, Tim Owen and Mike Palmer—for their tireless, selfless campaigning to make suicide awareness a compulsory part of the school curriculum. We are all aware of their campaign. Andy, Tim and Mike tragically each lost their precious daughters, Sophie, Emily and Beth, to suicide. It is humbling for us all to be here to support them in their campaign. They have bravely turned their personal tragedy towards positive change to help other people. It was a privilege to join them on their walk as they came through Penrith. As we have seen today, their petition has been amazing, gaining around 159,000 signatures. I have lost track of their fundraising, but it is over £1 million, and I congratulate them all. I also thank all those who work with people young and old to protect and support their mental health in my constituency and right across the country, in the NHS and in charities such as Papyrus, Mind, the Samaritans and Every Life Matters.

I am passionate about parity of esteem between mental and physical health, and I have mentioned that since my maiden speech. I welcome the progress that has been made so far on suicide awareness since the Conservatives came into power, such as the introduction of the national suicide prevention strategy in 2012 and the cross-Government suicide prevention workplan in 2019. I welcome that that endeavour is being backed up by funding, such as the £150 million for mental health facilities, which includes supporting a mental health crisis centre at the Carleton Clinic in Carlisle. That is all vital for ensuring that mental health crises are handled by the most appropriate people to provide the most appropriate care for their needs, but we are all here today to press for more preventive measures to try to avoid crisis and, ultimately, catastrophe.

Today’s debate shows the work of the House at its very best, as there is unity on addressing the important issue of mental health. The unity of the House is clear, with the early-day motion that I was humbled to introduce on behalf of the 3 Dads last year, which called for suicide prevention and mental health first aid in educational settings, being signed by 41 Members from across the House. That has also been recognised by our Prime Minister, and I look forward to taking the issue forward when the 3 Dads and I meet him in the meeting that I recently secured for them.

Why do we need this change? As we have heard, the evidence is clear that there is a crisis among our young people, and we need to take action. As Andy, Tim and Mike have highlighted at the heart of their campaigning, the reality is that, tragically, suicide is the biggest killer of under-35s in the UK. As we have heard, more than five young people take their lives each day and over 200 schoolchildren are lost to suicide every year. The majority are teenagers, but some are primary-age children. The data are unclear, and perhaps that is due to the way that deaths by suicide are interpreted and recorded.

The Government have long recognised that education is a crucial tool for ensuring that our young people are fully equipped to deal with the realities of the wider world. The Government’s action to make relationships, sex and health education mandatory in schools is an important commitment to our young people and their wellbeing, but that commitment can benefit our young people only if every young person across the country is equipped to tackle every serious issue that may well affect their wellbeing. At the moment, there is a disparity: we equip our young people to tackle relationships, drugs, alcohol and other problems that may threaten their wellbeing, but we do not consistently provide our young people with the tools in their arsenal to tackle the threat of suicide.

Although I appreciate that the Government provide statutory guidance on mental health, making suicide awareness a compulsory part of the school curriculum would do something even more fundamental. The change would fundamentally re-enforce to our young people that their mental and physical health are equally important, need equal care and protection, and have parity of esteem in the eyes of wider society. Ultimately, that would help to break down the stigma that many people face because of their mental health, providing the same ability to discuss it openly and honestly as we would do with other aspects of our wellbeing. As we have heard, however, we must ensure that there is proper support for young people at all stages of education, including university and college, where being away from family and friends, and in a unique environment, can be an exciting journey for the majority but very challenging for others.

I declare an interest, because in my career in higher education I have had mental health first aid training and also ASIST—applied suicide intervention skills training. The huge take-home that I took from that was that we must not tiptoe around the subject; we must address it directly, but in a very sensitive way. I can say from my personal experience that I have applied the training. When I addressed the subject with one person I was liaising with, their relief welled up and they said, “Oh my goodness, Neil, thank you. You understand.” That was a real lesson to me that we cannot tiptoe around the subject.

The training does not make someone an expert or a consultant in mental health, but it gives them the tools to help them to talk to people and signpost them towards the help they need. Accordingly, I am strongly supportive of the concept of mental health first aid training, as I have heard other Members say today. In addition to the petition’s aim of putting suicide awareness and prevention on the school curriculum, I would welcome the Government’s considering expanding mental health first aid more widely into all educational settings.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch
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Does my hon. Friend agree that one issue is that mental health first aid training is not a standard provision and that quite often it is only employed by people after a tragic event? Recently, a young man associated with Aylesford Football Club took his own life and as a consequence the football club has reached out and become a mental health first aid trainer. However, it was unfortunate that it took such a tragic event for that to happen. As part of the safeguarding policies in schools and sports clubs, mental health first aid training could be offered as a standard part of the toolbox.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Hudson
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My hon. Friend makes a very powerful and sensible point, and I completely agree. This is about putting in place measures to prevent crisis. On many occasions when I have met the 3 Dads, I have heard that schools have brought measures in after a catastrophe. What we are talking about today is preventive healthcare medicine.

It is very important that intervention in schools is done sensitively and, as we have heard today, in an age-appropriate way, in the curriculum, with guidance. We also need to think about how we deal with the question for younger children. Tim is one of the 3 Dads and when I met him recently we discussed some of the language that could be used and is being used for younger children, and I was very struck by that. There is the concept of, “If you are sad and you don’t want to be here”. That sort of language can actually address some of the issues in age-appropriate and sensitive way.

Let me also briefly expand out of education and into mental health in rural areas. Andy, who is a constituent of mine in Cumbria, will be very well aware of the issues that we face in rural areas. My interest is rooted in my personal and professional background, and my experience of the foot and mouth crisis. In Cumbria and right across the UK, we are now struggling with the avian influenza outbreak. The mental health impact of such things on rural communities should not be understated.

On the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, we are conducting an inquiry into this issue. One of the key issues that we have found, which is why I wanted to bring mental health in rural areas into this part of the debate, is that there is a common theme of people being reluctant to seek help—to put their hand up and say, “I’m struggling”. It is that concept of being able to feel that it is okay to not be okay.

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

The devastation caused by outbreaks of disease among animals can be huge for farmers and rural communities and can be ongoing, too. The inquiry that the EFRA Committee has instigated will produce a report in due course, but one of the key areas is talking about prevention. How can we help people in whatever walk of life they are in—schools, education, rural communities or urban communities? How can we reach out and help people to help themselves? The principles that we are discussing for education settings have wider-ranging implications in society, for mental health first aid training and for putting in place preventative measures so that we can prevent catastrophe.

Finally, I pay tribute to 3 Dads Walking for their fortitude and their gritty determination to keep campaigning on this vital issue. I thank them and all the charities that are assisting them for all their work. Hon. Members on both sides of the House can work together and I look forward to hearing from the Government about how we can put in place preventive measures in schools and educational settings.