Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Stephen Morgan Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Stephen Morgan Portrait Stephen Morgan (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to Mike Palmer, Andy Airey and Tim Owen, who, as we have heard, raised more than £1 million for suicide prevention charities, inspired 159,000 people to sign the petition that triggered this debate, and brought the issue of suicide prevention in schools to the national consciousness.

As other hon. Members have mentioned, the 3 Dads came together following the deaths of their daughters Beth, Sophie and Emily. They are united by their grief and a shared motivation to tackle the causes of suicide. They completed two heroically long-distance walks to raise money and awareness, and to campaign for suicide prevention to be included in the national curriculum. Last year, the trio spent a month walking 600 miles between the four Parliaments of the UK to bring their campaign directly to politicians. Poignantly, they say they are

“part of a club no-one wants to be in, and yet sadly they are always meeting new members.”

The strength of feeling they have generated for their campaign has been shown in the backing their petition received for today’s debate. I am sure everyone present will join me in saying thank you to them. I also pay tribute to the work done by other suicide prevention charities and campaigners who devote their lives to helping people who often feel they have no one to turn to in their hour of need.

We have heard from a number of hon. Members from across the House with helpful and insightful contributions, with stories from their constituencies, from personal experience and from our communities’ fantastic array of voluntary and community sector organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) spoke with real insight and expertise in her capacity as chair of the APPG, shared helpful research into suicide prevention and spoke about the invaluable role of the charitable sector in supporting families and promoting mental wellbeing. My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) spoke passionately about what is at stake if we do not act. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about the need to create safe spaces both in communities and online to prevent suicide and the support needed to give young people the skills to be resilient and to gain the confidence to speak up and talk.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for bravely sharing the tragic story of Jack’s life and the lessons that need to be learned. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made helpful points about the need for support in universities, while my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) set out the challenges that CAMHS are facing and the consequences in constituencies across the country.

As we have heard tonight, while it is often not talked about, suicide is the biggest killer of the under-35s in the UK. Research has shown that women aged 16 to 24 are more likely to report having self-harmed than any other age group, with almost 20% reporting self-harm, and that suicidal thoughts are also most common in women aged 16 to 24. More than 200 schoolchildren are lost to suicide every year—each one of them a tragedy. In 2016, a commitment was made to reduce the rate of suicide in England by 10% by 2020, but by 2020 the rate was almost the same. Clearly, more needs to be done.

Research shows that with the appropriate intervention and suicide support for young people, all this could be prevented. It is therefore so important that we as a society ensure that the interventions are in place and that that support is always ready. We cannot bury our heads in the sand on these issues. Suicide needs to be discussed even if it is uncomfortable. In recent years, progress has been made in ending the stigma around mental health, but it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure that mental health problems are given equal priority to physical health.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, too many young people are struggling with their mental health. NHS data shows that one in six children had a probable mental health condition in 2021, up from one in nine in 2017. Children are struggling without support—unable to see a GP and stuck on children and adolescent mental health service waiting lists for years, left in limbo without help. Concerningly, a report by Schools Week last year found that suicidal children are being turned away by overstretched CAMH services, with schools instead told to “keep them safe”. The investigation also found that many mental health services refuse to see children with a diagnosis of autism and other neurodevelopmental differences on the grounds that they do not meet the criteria for therapy. Families told reporters that they are being left to “keep children alive” as they either wait or are rejected from support.

No child should be left without the support that they need to be happy and healthy. No parent should be left feeling unsupported and alone when helping their child to face mental health problems. No teacher should be left stuck, unable to refer children for the professional support that is needed. That is why Labour is committed to giving children access to a professional mental health counsellor in every school. We would also ensure that children are not stuck waiting for referrals, unable to get support. Teachers would not be expected to provide expert mental health services that they are not trained to deliver.

We would also ensure that every child knows that help is at hand, and for the young people for whom accessing that support in school is not the right choice, we will deliver a new model of open-access mental health hubs in every community. They will build on work already under way in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, and provide an open door for all our young people. They will get support to children early and prevent problems from escalating—improving young people’s mental health, not just responding when they are in crisis.

Alongside the investment in children’s mental health, Labour would oversee a radical expansion of the mental health workforce, resulting in over a million more people receiving support each year. A new NHS target would be set, ensuring that patients start receiving appropriate treatment, not simply initial assessment of needs, within a month of referral. We would also review the school curriculum, making sure that young people are ready for work and life. As we have heard, it is important that we teach young people to understand their mental health, in order for them to be able to identify warning signs of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing, which could lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts in themselves and others.

One in four people in England experiences a mental health problem of some kind each year. One in six people in England reports experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week. It is key that young people who are struggling recognise that they are not alone in that, that help is at hand, and that they know how to find that help for themselves and their friends.

The Department for Education is committed to reviewing RSHE statutory guidance. I encourage all campaigners and experts, and those listening to the debate today, to submit their evidence to that process. Our schools and teachers must be equipped to talk about mental health problems and suicide prevention in a safe and age-appropriate way. That is something everyone across the political spectrum can agree on, so it is crucial that we get it right. We should ensure that all reforms are evidence based, and done with children’s wellbeing at their heart.

In conclusion, the highest priority for the Department for Education and all schools must be to protect children’s safety and wellbeing. In his response, I hope that the Minister will outline what his Department is doing to help children who are struggling with their mental health get the support they need. What is his Department doing to bring down waiting times for children who need mental health services? What is his Department doing to help prevent suicide among young people?

I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and thank the 159,000 people who signed the petition to trigger this important debate. Conversations about suicide prevention can only lead to increased support and more dialogue. It is key that nowhere is off limits for life-changing conversations. I hope that any actions taken going forward ensure that more lives are saved.