Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Rachael Maskell Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is humbling to be called to speak in today’s debate. Every step breaks taboos; every mile tells a story; every day hearts are joined in grief and healing as sons and daughters are mourned and celebrated. But the void they have left is beckoning with not only questions but answers. As three dads are traversing our nation, they are tearing down the stigma of suicide that too many are wrestling with. They are creating safe spaces to talk; they are ensuring that Sophie, Emily and Beth are heard. They have brought us to this place, through their petition to seek change.

Andy, Tim and Mike, we are indebted to you. Today, it is their pleas that must be heard, and I sincerely thank them for all they are doing. Having had the privilege of meeting them last week, I know how much this debate means to them. I am sure that the Minister and shadow Minister will not only listen, but advance their calls. Their mission is to reduce the number of young people who take their own lives, by shattering the stigma surrounding suicide and equipping young people and their communities with the skills to recognise and respond to emotional distress. Across our nation, people are struggling with their mental health. Let us be honest, we all do, in different ways and at different times. For some, the night passes quickly, while others spiral into a dark and enduring place, where the echoes of despair resonate louder than any hope.

Papyrus knows better than any charity the scale of the problem, and I sincerely thank them for their work. Our mental health services cannot cope. Child and adolescent mental health services are struggling, and with mental health receiving just 8.6% of the health budget, there is no parity of esteem to speak of. We know that with early intervention only a few would ever need to call on the NHS for care. That is the call that must come out of this debate. Young people talk extensively about mental health, but when the moment gets hard—in the silences—it is the toxicity of TikTok that is sucking them into the algorithms of despair, drawing them to make the wrong choices. From self-harm to suicide, children are accessing content that takes them down some very dangerous paths. As adults, parents, teachers, youth workers and politicians, let us acknowledge that, and take the necessary steps to keep our young people safe.

As we have heard, suicide is the biggest killer of under-35s in our country, with over 200 school-age children taken every year.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Member for giving way, and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing forward this very important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) was saying, the internet has some dark places. Surely, in schools we must be warning about online harms, and we must also make those platforms take more responsibility. I welcome the Online Harms Bill, but should we not also be addressing the platforms on this?

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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The hon. Member is absolutely right that the online space continues to be unsafe for too many people. There is so much more that needs to be done to aid our understanding of new initiatives online and to ensure that everyone can be safe online at all times.

Of course, we are not talking about numbers, but about people who are struggling. According to the ONS, 5,583 suicides were registered in England and Wales just last year, with a ratio of men to women of almost 2:1. It is the young people we often think about. They need the skills and resilience to manage the very worst of their emotions. We know that talking is powerful, but, without young people knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them, and without parents and teachers actively reaching out, we are leaving our young people in danger. We need a greater therapeutic approach to our education system. We locked up our young people through covid, which proved tougher than anyone could have imagined. A generation is really struggling. They do not need brutal academic stress and harsh disciplinarian regimes, such as those that I discussed this morning at a local school in York. The behaviour in schools guidance needs serious revision.

The need for talking is there before us. Who can help young people to work through their anxieties, stresses and depression? They need space to explore and explain. Mums and dads need tools and skills to support and listen. Teachers need help too; they need training to talk about suicide. We cannot shy away or soften the words, for suicide is real. Adults need to catch up with young people and recognise that. As politicians, we cannot be squeamish or in denial, because we are losing our sons and daughters, and sadly mums and dads, too.

Life is really tough. People have not got enough money, and home is not always a safe place. Some young people carry a heavy weight. Life never turns out as we hope. Bullying is rife, there is a loneliness epidemic, and toxic social media is ever judging and tormenting, yet we do not talk about suicide and when that starts to play on the minds of its victims.

Minister, it is time to teach and time to talk to every child in every school. We start with the teachers, who need Government backing. We need every teacher trained so that they are ready to talk to their students, whatever age or context, knowing how to check in and reach out as well as guide and care. Every school needs to be a safe place for parents to learn and ask those questions that are never aired, for we can no longer hear the cries of “Why didn’t anyone tell us?”. We must also teach every child. For younger children, it is about mental health first aid—having safe conversations when they feel sad. As the years grow, children need to know who to talk to, how to talk and how to keep themselves safe. If we do not talk to our young people about suicide, it will find them. But if they are taught resilience, they will have the skills for life that they need to stay safe and well.

The pilgrimage of Tim, Andy and Mike has brought them to this place, to the Minister’s door. They are not here to beg or plead, because for them, this has come too late. Instead, they are here to tell us what it means to lose their beautiful daughters and how the tears of other parents need never be shed. This will probably be the most important debate of the Minister’s time in this place. It is time to open the door to open minds and open hearts. Let us listen and learn and ensure that all is done to keep our young people safe. It is time for walking to turn into talking.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I would like to raise two further points. One is about teacher training, and ensuring that teachers get the right training put to them when they are going through their training. The second point is about parents. Schools are part of a wider community, and parents are obviously part of that community—knowing how to have those conversations with their children is really important. How will the review look, in a wider scope, at being able to provide the support in the right place?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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I will take both of those points under advisement. The hon. Member is talking about the wider issue of parents; we are really talking here about a curriculum for schools. Of course, in due course those children become parents—they become adults and parents. Teacher training is a wider issue. First of all, we need to get the curriculum right, and that is what will come out of this thorough review of the whole RSHE guidance, which we are starting right now.

The Government have also committed to publishing a new national suicide prevention strategy for England this year. The strategy will reflect new evidence and national priorities for preventing suicides. The Department for Education has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care throughout the development of the strategy to understand what more we can do to reduce suicide and self-harm among children and young people. In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), my Department and the Department of Health and Social Care are committed to publishing that strategy this year.

In conclusion, the mental health of children is a priority for this Government, and we know that schools can play a critical role in supporting children’s mental wellbeing. We will monitor implementation of the new curriculum and continue to work to improve teacher confidence to deliver these broad-ranging and sensitive topics to the best of their abilities—a point raised by the hon. Member for York Central. We will also continue the roll-out of training for senior mental health leads and mental health support teams to ensure that schools are getting the best support possible on pupil mental health.

I have set out the measures already in place and the ways in which schools can and do support pupils, including those with suicidal feelings. Once the review of the RSHE statutory guidance has concluded, we will be able to consider what more can be done to support pupils further.