Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Tracey Crouch Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on his excellent and powerful opening speech. I am humbled to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who does excellent work in the all-party group.

The debate is one we all wish was not necessary. Sadly, it is, but I am relieved that we have a thoughtful and compassionate Minister in place who I know will look at the issue in great detail, as he does so many things, and will try to come to a speedy decision for the benefit of everyone. I had not met them before the debate, but I pay tribute to 3 Dads Walking, who have done a phenomenal amount to raise awareness. We can all agree that that is something that no parent ever wants to do, but they have powerfully put across that personal story. I pay tribute to Papyrus, which continues to campaign on the prevention of young suicide, and other national and local charities that continue to support those with suicidal tendencies and the family members who have been left behind.

As local MPs, we are often approached by constituents with some of the most tragic and challenging circumstances, and we do our utmost to support them and provide the right advice. However, being approached by a parent whose child has taken their own life is utterly heartbreaking, and I suspect it leaves most of us struggling to find the right words of advice and support. I am sorry to say that I have learned of too many suicides in and around my constituency. Each and every one is a tragedy. Each and every one is a person with a unique story. Each and every one is a life taken too soon.

Nationally, the statistics speak for themselves. In 2021—the last date available—5,583 people took their own life, three quarters of whom were men. While there is a specific concern about middle-aged men, we are seeing a worrying increase in the number of school-aged children taking their life, with figures suggesting over 200 a year. That could and should be reduced through better institutional and individual awareness, as well as a better functioning mental health support system.

Today I want to focus on two recent lost lives, and I do so with permission from their parents. I thank them for having the courage and strength to share their experiences with me and, importantly, their thoughts on what steps are necessary to potentially prevent other parents and loved ones from experiencing the loss of a child. In both cases, they were boys at secondary school.

It was just over a year ago that Ryan’s body was found. He had gone missing from his home in Eccles, a small close-knit village that neighbours my own. I found myself quite affected by Ryan’s disappearance. He had a connection to my son’s football club, and the CCTV footage of Ryan on the night he went missing was from my street. I quietly joined others in looking for Ryan and found myself doing regular walks along the river when it became clear that that was where the police were focusing their efforts.

Ryan’s disappearance and subsequent recovery was absolutely heartbreaking for Eccles and Aylesford. I know his school well. I know of his friends and I know his teachers. I confess that, when his dad emailed me, I did not know what to say. What do you say? What would I want someone to say to me? Ryan was 17, and it turns out that he had made a passing comment at school. Although there is certainly no blame cast, with better awareness could something had been done? Ryan’s dad said:

“Whilst we will never know why Ryan did what he did, and we will also never know if having suicide spoken about openly at school might have saved him, we are keen to see suicide awareness and prevention in schools progress. If it saves just one person now and again it will be worth it”.

Ben Ambrose was 15 when his mum, Cathryn, found him lifeless in his bedroom. There is currently a legal case regarding Ben, so I should be careful what I say, but Cathryn felt and still feels very let down by the institutional failures in education and mental health services. We met and spoke for a very long time about the deep lack of awareness and understanding of mental health issues in some schools, and how their policies and procedures on paper do not necessarily reflect their practices. In my eyes, Cathryn is a phenomenal woman. She is not only fighting for Ben, with support from Irwin Mitchell, but she wants to help stop this happening to others. She is very pro suicide education and awareness, and like me wants there to be more conversations in schools about it. She wants to talk to students about mental health; she wants to be part of the prevention programme.

Cathryn is not alone. Pre covid, I was on the cusp of trialling a few talking sessions in schools with boys about mental health. The idea had come from a question and answer session at a local boys’ school, where mental health was mentioned more than once. It also came from another mum who lost her adult son to suicide, and, coincidentally, from a man who, having experienced his own brush with suicidal thought, was keen to talk to others, particularly young boys, about mental health.

Covid scuppered it all, and the plans have not been revived, in part because it is scary to go and talk about these things without qualifications and proper guidance. I get why schools might be nervous about having conversations, and why Ministers might be nervous about allowing them to be had, but by working with the right people in the right way, we can create a useful tool that would work.

Sadly, as I am discovering, there is no definitive parenting manual out there. There is no guidebook that tells a parent how to react—or, indeed, how not to react —when their child is struggling with mental health, or starts to self-harm or look at harmful websites. The natural reaction might not be the right reaction. That is why I truly believe that we all need better awareness and much more access to support for mental health, whether it is our own, our friends’ or, most worryingly, our children’s.

In our formative years, because of the amount of time children spend in education, teachers become incredibly important figures in our lives. I understand why some have concerns that we are asking our educators to do so much more than teach maths, English, science and so on, but if we are to take a more holistic approach to addressing mental health, they need the right tools and training. If targeted interventions and teaching at the right age can help people identify mental health conditions and suicide thoughts they or others are experiencing, could that help those suffering there and then or later in life?

I will leave the final words to Ryan’s dad:

“The devastating and lasting effect that this has had on everybody is very difficult to compare to other bereavement we have experienced. One minute our happy and brilliant son is with us and in the blink of an eye he has gone.”

I know the Minister understands how difficult it would have been to write those words; they are hard to speak and hard to hear. If there is one thing that the tragedies of Ryan, Ben, Emily, Sophie, Beth and many others have sparked, it is an awareness of suicide and mental health among their peers and teachers, but we need that to remain long after their friends have left school. That is why I support the petition to put suicide prevention on the national curriculum. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

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Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The review will be thorough. It will not only talk to experts, but will look at the data and evidence and statistics from Ofsted and other bodies to ensure it is thorough and leads to the RSHE guidance document being the most effective it can be to deliver the aims and objectives of the RSHE curriculum.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch
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On the review, will the Minister commit to speaking to the parents and loved ones of those who have taken their lives to hear them tell their stories and explain why they believe passionately that this should be on the curriculum?

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.