Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). That was clearly not an easy speech to make. Coming from a large family—I am up to about 20 nephews, nieces, great nephews and great nieces; even the children are having children now—I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like if one of them sadly went down the same route as Jack, and her speech was incredibly brave. Having spoken in a debate last year after the death of one of my very close friends by suicide, I know you feel powerless when it happens but, at the same time, you think, “Well, by speaking up and using what powers we have in this place to try to draw attention to it, I am at least doing something that will help others.”

Before getting to the main thrust of my speech, I want to pick up on a couple of things that my hon. Friend mentioned. I too attended my friend’s inquest, and a prevention of future deaths notice was published. I did quite a lot of digging around beforehand as to what was going to happen at the inquest. There is an issue about how long these things take. He ended up having a fairly quick hearing, but some cases take a long time to get to that stage. It is not entirely clear what happens when these notices are issued, and I asked some parliamentary questions about this matter. It is one thing a coroner issuing a notice, but does it just end up in a big pile? Is action actually being taken and are efforts being made to ensure that lessons really are learned?

The other thing I would pick up on is what my hon. Friend said about university students. Sadly, University of Bristol had a spate of suicides, which was again why my attention was drawn to this issue. The issue also came up at an event I did last year with the band New Order, talking with the Campaign Against Living Miserably —the suicide prevention charity. One thing that came through was that, in some cases, universities do not feel that they can talk to the parents because students are classed as adults and, even though there are signs of distress, they feel they cannot go back to them. There is a need for a named adult when students register, so they can ensure parents know what is going on. Again, there were a few cases where that had not happened.

In some cases, as we have heard, there are few signs from young people and children, and families can be shocked by sudden incidents when they were not aware their child had mental health problems. However, a record number of children have mental health problems that are known and are on the NHS mental health waiting list. The situation is worsening rapidly, in part because of the pressures on children because of covid and the years of lockdown.

NHS stats from November last year revealed that one in six children aged between seven and 16 show signs of a probable mental health condition, and that jumps to one in four among young people aged 17 to 19. Half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14, so it is imperative that we ensure today’s school pupils do not end up as tomorrow’s suicide statistics, whether that is when they are still young people or, as in my friend’s case, 30 or 40 years down the line.

I recently asked about adverse childhood experiences at Prime Minister’s questions. I think the Prime Minister just heard the words “children” and “mental health” and replied about what mental health support is available, rather than actually addressing my question. I do not particularly blame him for that, but I was asking about how we prevent children from reaching a stage when they are in mental health crisis because of things going on in their lives. We need to address not just the consequences, but the causes of poor mental health in children and, ideally, prevent those adverse childhood experiences from happening in the first place.

I entirely support calls to talk more about mental health. I encourage children to seek support if they are struggling, and I encourage teachers and professionals to try to identify whether children are in that place, but it should not just be about helping children cope. It should be about trying to ensure that children are happy and healthy right from the word go, whether that is trying to stop things like online harms; dealing with problems at home, including parents who may not be getting the help they need themselves, which will obviously have an impact on their children; or any of the other factors we know lead to children feeling in a dark place. Any strategy also has to include that.

As has been said, about four children a week—200 a year—lose their lives to suicide. I commend 3 Dads Walking for drawing attention to the issue, and for its work with the charity Every Life Matters. Going back to my earlier point, I see that the dads feel this work is the least they can do. I hope that we can do justice to them today, and that the Minister can show them that something will come of all their efforts. I also commend Papyrus and other charities for their work.

Bristol City Council published its updated suicide prevention plan last August. One of the seven action points is about targeting mental health among specific groups, including children and young people. That includes providing mental health first aid, a course called SafeTALK, and self-harm training to school mental health leads. I am sure we will hear more from the shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), about Labour’s plans for mental health professionals in every school. The council’s plan also includes a “suicide pack” and a “self-harm toolkit” produced in Bristol, which are practical resources. Members have mentioned quite a few local charities. In Bristol, Off the Record works mostly with young people to offer them outreach, mental heal workshops, one-to-one counselling and so on.

People have already flagged that any sort of education in schools needs to be done in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. My concern is that talking generally to a group of children who are in a reasonably good place might be fine. If a child is already in a dark place, I am not entirely sure that is the best way of reaching out to them, particularly for an introverted child who has gone inside themselves. That is a question for the professionals, but I wanted to flag that up.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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The hon. Lady raises an interesting point in paying tribute to 3 Dads Walking and everyone who has campaigned on this issue. We have heard strong support from across the Chamber for doing more. Does she agree that it is important to work with the experts to ensure that any curriculum materials are properly sourced and age-appropriate? Elsewhere in the RSHE curriculum, there has been a big backlash and concerns when parents feel that might not be the case. If this is to be done, it needs to be done well. Organisations such as Papyrus and CALM, which the hon. Lady mentioned, can play an important part in informing that.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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That is absolutely right. We always talk about the value of tailoring things to the individual, whether that is job seeking or health support. That can be difficult when resources are tight. My plea is that we have the teaching assistants and extra staff in schools so they can get to know the children and learn their individual characteristics.

I want to flag the issue of neurodiversity. We already know that children mature at different ages, so determining what is age-appropriate can be quite difficult. I have personal experience of one case where a child was in mainstream secondary school, but was so distressed and alarmed by what she was being taught about drugs, crime, gangs and so on, that she ended up in a full-blown mental health crisis and went to residential provision, where she was diagnosed with autism. She went into a special school because that was a safer environment for her. That is just one example of how being taught about something is different for every child. Some of the available therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, might not be appropriate for somebody with an autism diagnosis whose mind does not work in that sort of way.

The special educational needs and disabilities review, which was published last year, was jointly authored by the Health Secretary and the Education Secretary, but there was very little about the overlap with CAMHS. I know the Minister is not here to speak for the Health Department, but the role of CAMHS is crucial.

My other point is about what support is provided once lessons and that individual’s one-to-one support are over. I will end on that. I do not know what has happened to the suicide prevention strategy; I hope that we see it. I think I was told that it was imminent when I did my Westminster Hall debate last year, but I look forward to hearing from the Minister.