– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 13th March 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 623390, relating to suicide prevention and the national curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. First, I thank the petitioners—the 3 Dads Walking—for their brilliant campaign; I know that they are here today. I also thank Papyrus, the charity leading the prevention of young suicide in the UK, for its work and the support it has given to 3 Dads Walking. This is something that those dads never thought they would be involved with, or even want to be, but sadly, each of them, along with their families, has suffered immensely through the loss of their daughters. If anything good can come out of three such tragedies, we in this place must do all we can to help.
I will speak about the three dads and their daughters. First, there is Tim and his daughter Emily from Norfolk. Emily was 19 and took her life in March 2020. She was the life and soul of every room, meeting and party—a free spirit and a talented artist. She had struggled for some time and a late diagnosis of autism had not helped. She could not cope with life under lockdown and attempted to take her life. She sadly died five days later.
Secondly, there is Andy and his daughter Sophie from Cumbria. Sophie took her life just before Christmas 2018. She was 29. She was an open, happy young lady with a wide circle of friends. She brought a smile and a sense of fun to everyone she met. No one had an inkling that she was feeling suicidal—everyone said,
“she seemed like ‘normal’ Sophie.”
If she had felt able to share her emotions, everyone would have helped, but sadly, she did not.
Thirdly, there is Mike and his daughter Beth from south Manchester. Beth was 17 and she died in March 2020. She was a leader, including being the head girl at her primary school. She was outgoing, independent and an artist with a record contract. Her dad Mike says:
“Not one single person…saw this coming.”
If she had only known about the many charities, maybe she would still be alive. Those are three tragic stories and three brave dads.
Those three brave dads came together to set off on walks to raise more than £1 million for Papyrus and its HopelineUK helpline and text service, which provide much-needed support for our young people. More importantly, they have raised awareness of a subject that sadly affects many families across the country.
I am fortunate to be able to stand and lead debates in this place, and I hope that many are watching. When leading such debates, I like to not only ask the Government what the petitioners have requested, which I will come on to, but speak directly to the public. Hopefully, I can pass on information that I have learned in my research and in my position as a Member of Parliament. I will therefore start by sharing some guidance on talking about this subject.
The first message is never to say “commit” when speaking of suicide. That is an out-of-date term for people taking their own lives, and one that we should refrain from using. People do not commit a crime when they take their own life. They are obviously in a place of deep unhappiness, and their memory should not be tarnished by poor language. They took their own life or they died by suicide. Let us all try to remember that today.
There are many great charities working hard to end suicide. As well as Papyrus, there are the Samaritans, James’ Place, Mind, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, Mates in Mind, Baton of Hope and many others that do great work in this field. We should pay tribute to them all in this place.
Helpfully, Samaritans has produced some basic rules for discussing or reporting suicide, and we should all take note. The rules include: not reporting the method or sensationalising the act; not referring to a site or a location; and avoiding an excessive amount of coverage and/or speculation in the media or on social media. Those are really helpful tips that might just prevent someone from taking their life. I recommend the information on the Samaritans website and also its excellent Small Talk Saves Lives campaign.
Let me now look at what Andy, Tim and Mike, Papyrus and the 160,000 people who signed the petition are asking for. It is to ensure that suicide and self-harm awareness is included in the national curriculum, specifically in the relationship, sex and health education curriculum, and that it should be age appropriate. Obviously, all three dads have a specific interest because they have each suffered their own individual tragic loss. However, their main aim is to help other families and young people, and to stop the biggest single killer of our young people.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and he is making a very important speech about this subject, which is not talked about often enough. Some of my constituents got in touch with me about their son, Peter, who sadly took his own life in 2012. They are clear that there has to be more information about suicide and suicide prevention in schools. I know that Scotland has a different curriculum to England, but this is something that we can work on on a cross-party basis to achieve across the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and I offer my condolences to Peter’s family. As she said, this greater awareness is something that we want across the entire UK.
As I was saying, suicide is the single biggest killer of young people in Britain. The figures are very difficult to swallow. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that between April 2020 and March 2021 157 young boys and 72 young girls between the ages of 10 and 19 took their own life. That cannot be right, can it?
At least until my time in this place began, I was one of the many people who thought that talking about self-harm and suicide was not a good idea; I thought that putting thoughts into young people’s minds by discussing the issue openly would only make things worse. However, the many professionals and charities I have spoken to disagree, and a literature review conducted by Cambridge University showed that there is no research to prove that that idea about putting thoughts into young people’s minds about suicide was true. Children are exposed to so much on their phones that they need the tools to help them to deal with the subject. An appropriate curriculum, taught well, could do just that. However, we also need to think and act maturely and responsibly on this issue. If we find that, by discussing this issue, an unintended consequence is that suicide rates among young people increase, we must be prepared to think again.
The professionals who I have spoken to are all agreed that this subject should be included in the curriculum. They also agreed that year 7 and upwards was the best time to start. Furthermore, they agreed that it should not be discussed just in one year of secondary school, which I believe some schools already do, but should form part of each academic year for 11 to 12-year-olds upwards. For those children who are younger, this subject should not necessarily be broached. However, the message to them should be that they have the right to be, and to feel, safe. There should be no secrets and nothing should be kept from parents, on this matter or any other.
The professionals said that ideally this subject should be taught by external providers who are specialists in it and that after each session there should be a follow-up session to talk to any children who are concerned. They also said that both parents and teachers should be trained in how to deal with children who were struggling; in how to better spot any signs that something might be wrong; and in being proactive in starting conversations. We cannot place the responsibility on the shoulders of our young boys and girls to come forward and talk. It is our responsibility—in fact, our duty—to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. Mental health first aid training might be one way of achieving that.
I have concerns about bringing external providers into schools, as I have seen some highly inappropriate content on other subjects within RSHE, and parents are kept in the dark about what is being taught. If we are to use such providers, the content must be shared with parents. If a parent has concerns, their voice should be respected. I am sure the Government will take that on board.
Last week, I was delighted to receive a letter for the 3 Dads and I from the Secretary of State for Education. It said that the Government will include suicide prevention as a key priority area in their forthcoming review of RSHE. I greatly welcome that move; it is a real step forward. I am hopeful of a good debate today where we all have one aim: stopping our children and young people taking their own lives. Their lives are so precious. As a dad, my children are my life and my greatest joy; I cannot think of anything worse than losing them. I ask the Minister to do what we can to stop this. The Government are good, and they can—and do—do good things. Let this be the next good thing they do.
I ask hon. Members to stand if you want to speak, even if you have written in. If you have not written in, please stand. It will give you and me an idea of how to proportion the time during the debate.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Nick Fletcher for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
Most of all, I thank the 3 Dads Walking for everything they have done to raise awareness of suicide in young people. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mike, Andy and Tim. I am delighted that their petition has led to this debate being brought forward, with 160,000 signatures. That is truly amazing. There could not be a more fitting tribute to the lives of Beth, Sophie and Emily than the passion and dedication that their dads have shown. I also thank Papyrus for its support to the 3 Dads and for all its work to tackle young suicides.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, it has been an honour to meet so many inspiring people who, having lost a loved one to suicide, have dedicated so much time and energy to ensuring that other families do not have to go through the same thing. The 3 Dads is the club that no one wants to join, as they say. However, many people who have found themselves in it have carried out brilliant work in the face of great adversity. The Government must do everything they can to match their efforts.
Unfortunately, the issue is touching more and more families. Suicide has recently become the biggest killer of young people under 25. It is estimated that in an average week, four schoolchildren will take their own lives. Although young men are three times more likely to take their own lives than their female peers, the suicide rate for young women is now at its highest on record. We are getting better at tackling the stigma and talking about mental health, but suicide and self-harm is still a taboo subject. As we have heard, people are worried that by talking about suicide, they may say the wrong thing—or worse, encourage it. That is a particular fear when talking to children and young people about suicide.
Sadly, this issue is already in the lives of so many young people, as demonstrated by work carried out on online harms. In a recent Samaritans study with over 5,000 participants, over three quarters of them said they first saw self-harm content online before the age of 14. Several studies have suggested an association between suicidal ideation and accessing relevant content online. Better online safeguards are a must, but we must also equip our young people with the skills and knowledge to deal with the unique pressures that they currently face.
It has been my pleasure to work with the local organisation If U Care Share, which has been delivering suicide prevention workshops to school pupils across the north-east for over 10 years. The charity was founded by the family of Daniel O’Hare, who was just 19 when he took his own life in 2005. Its dedicated team, which includes Daniel’s brother Matthew, is primarily made up of young people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The team speak to primary and secondary school children about their own stories, and how the children can be open about their emotions and mental health. Research carried out by the charity found that 19% of young people would go to a friend if they needed help, compared to just 6% who would approach someone at their school.
Suicide prevention training equips pupils with the skills and confidence to help each other as well as themselves. If U Care Share is one of many fantastic voluntary organisations that are working with young people to prevent suicide, but currently those organisations are picking up the pieces left over from the incapacity of statutory services. They often rely on short-term grants to carry out their vital work.
I am delighted to be able to say that If U Care Share has just been awarded funding from the National Lottery to support its suicide bereavement multiple death response programme over four years. Multiple deaths refers to a situation where more deaths occur by suicide than is normally expected at a certain time or place—or both. That can sometimes be as a result of contagion, whereby one person’s suicide influences another to engage in suicidal behaviour. Such suicide clusters are a rare event, but schools can be a setting in which they occur.
We must do more to ensure that suicide prevention work is placed on a stable footing. Currently, all funding supporting local areas’ core prevention plans is set to cease in 2023-24. We need continued ring-fenced funding across three years to support local areas to deliver targeted, non-clinical support services to prevent suicide. That would allow local authorities to commission long-term services from our best organisations, and empower them to support the most at-risk groups.
We must also do more to ensure that children are able to access help when they reach out for it. NHS figures show that children suffering mental health crises spent more than 900,000 hours in A&E last year. Between July 2021 and July 2022, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services increased by 24%. It is still important that we work to prevent suicidal ideation in young people, and promote mental wellbeing. It is also important that we ensure there are systems in place to support them in the most acute crises.
Making suicide prevention an essential part of the curriculum is another step towards ensuring that statutory, long-term support is in place for our young people whenever they may need it. But it must be backed up by the funding to ensure that all school pupils are able to access those life-saving workshops, such as those delivered by If U Care Share, and many other organisations. It must take the form of sensitive and thought-out content, delivered by people with the experience to make it count. Crucially, it must be built in as part of the curriculum, as the petitioners request, so that every student is supported.
I thank the hon. Member for her excellent speech, and particularly for the work she is doing as part of the APPG. On the comment that this is a cross-party issue, it has been mentioned that suicide sadly affects many families across the UK. My family is one of those, following the tragic suicide of my brother. Recently, I launched a campaign to have 100 people on Anglesey trained in mental health first aid. Does the hon. Member agree with me that it is absolutely vital that we talk about mental health, particularly with our young people, so we can give them the tools to speak about it and signpost them to the many fantastic organisations and charities that are there to support?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I offer my condolences to her on the loss of her brother. I, too, have been affected by suicide, so have personal experience of that and know how important it is to share. I certainly agree that it is vital that people talk more about suicide, and about having difficult suicidal thoughts as well. We want to prevent suicide, rather than see it continue. I thank her for that.
To conclude, I want to share a message from Daniel’s family, who often say,
“We taught Daniel to tie his shoe laces, and how to cross the road safely—but we never spoke to him about how life can throw things at you that you need some help to deal with. It is not a sign of weakness to reach out for help.”
Just like Daniel’s family, our schools teach our young people all about road awareness, online safety and many other vital lessons necessary to keep them safe, but today one of the things that is most likely to take the lives of our young people is our young people themselves. By talking more openly about suicide, we can save more young lives and prevent families like Daniel’s, Beth’s, Sophie’s and Emily’s from going through unimaginable pain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on his excellent and powerful opening speech. I am humbled to follow 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.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Nick Fletcher for bringing this petition to us.
My constituent Mike Palmer’s daughter, Beth, died by suicide on
Mike felt Beth’s loss so acutely that he was plunged into a suicidal spiral himself. A complex grief is left behind for families. The facts show that around 135 people are affected by one suicide and that those closest to the individual lost are 80% to 300% times more likely to take their own lives. However, through that despair, fate was to play a part. Mike was to team up with Tim and Andy, the fathers of two other beautiful young women, Emily and Sophie, who were also sadly lost to suicide, and so 3 Dads Walking was born.
For these men, a simple walk between their homes, raising funds and awareness for the charity Papyrus, which is dedicated to the prevention of young suicide, has turned into a life mission to prevent other families from going through the same lifelong agony that they face. Walking in 2021 and 2022, they covered over 900 miles and were on the road for 46 days. During the walks, Mike, Andy and Tim were joined continuously by other bereaved parents and those affected by suicide. Through conversations with those individuals, the same messages kept coming through: if our children had only known how to reach out, and had had an awareness of how to keep themselves safe, they might be here now. 3 Dads Walking believes that, if our young people’s greatest danger is themselves, we as a society should tell them and teach them, in an age-appropriate and sensitive way, how to keep themselves and others safe.
I put on record that many of my constituents in Weaver Vale have been inspired by 3 Dads Walking, and the clarion call to ensure that suicide prevention is integrated into the curriculum and that there is greater regulation. The call for greater regulation of online harm has come from my constituents who have been affected by suicide in their family.
I thank my colleague for his intervention. I am sure that the Education Minister will have heard that fully. I know the Minister to be an extraordinarily honourable man who takes the education of our children seriously, as I previously shadowed him in the post for a number of years.
We should talk about mental health in schools more, building the awareness and coping mechanisms that will foster more positive mental wellbeing and resilience in young people and helping to lay the foundations that will keep young people safe and reverse the tragically high rates of young suicide. Mike tells me that some of the most powerful stories that the 3 Dads hear on their walks are from those who have experienced severe mental health episodes, and in some cases have attempted suicide, but who have overcome those struggles and are now living happily, with full lives. Those stories show that hope is always possible and that people, especially with support, can make different choices and overcome the worst mental health struggles. Is an alternative outcome for families affected by suicide not worth fighting for? Surely the testimonies starkly demonstrate what is at stake if we do not act and what we can offer if we do. By providing life-saving knowledge to our young people, we can give them and their families an alternative path—a path to hope, a path to a happy and full life for them and their loved ones. That is a path that everyone deserves.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for introducing the debate, and the petitioners, the 3 Dads over there in the Public Gallery—Andy, Tim and Mike—who are doing a fantastic job.
I also thank my good friend, Graham Lynk, who is sat in the Public Gallery. He lost his son, Sean, to suicide in December last year. Graham is a brave man. He is a hard man and a gentleman. Like me, he is an ex-coal miner—we have done many a shift down the pit together. He is one of the bravest men I have come across in my life, but the loss of his son has broken him.
Sean Lynk was a brilliant young man. He was 30 years old when he took his life. He was a big, strong, confident, good-looking lad. He was a handsome man; he had his mother’s looks—and his mother’s brains, I think, Graham. He was a lovely young man. When he walked into a room, he lit it up. Everyone wanted to be around him. Everybody liked Sean.
We all loved Sean. I was drinking with him in the Dog House pub just a week before he took his own life. I never saw it coming. He was such a lovely young man; his death shocked the whole community and left many of us asking why. I would sit with him at weekends with his mum and dad, swapping old stories about our mining days. Sean would be sat there laughing and giggling with us. We never knew; he must have been in pain. On the face of it, he was a happy man. He was a good footballer and loved his sports. He loved his family and friends. He always surrounded himself with great, loving people. There were no signs, but something must have been wrong.
Sean’s dad, Graham, believes that Sean was using the dark web and looking at things that he probably should not have looked at. He was tapping into this dark, horrible web, which was giving him dark thoughts. But who knows? The police still have Sean’s phone, so we are yet to get to the bottom of that. I know the internet can be a dangerous place and can target people with the algorithms and do some horrible stuff—it can target vulnerable people. I am glad that the Online Safety Bill is going some way to address that, but we need to go further.
I thank the charities and support groups that are helping young people who have dark thoughts. In my patch, we have a charity called Enlighten the Shadows, which was set up by a young man called Rory Green, who had some dark thoughts himself. He and his partner lost their baby through a miscarriage. He felt hopeless and worthless—he felt like ending it all. He was in a really bad, dark and horrible place, but he got through it and he set up a support group online through Facebook and social media, and it had a website. He was absolutely astounded by the number of young men contacting him who had dark thoughts and suicidal thoughts. He reached out and got some other people on board, and he talked to men on a regular basis. He tells me that they have probably saved about 100 lives so far just through men talking to men. I know it is a big problem with young ladies and schoolgirls too, but the vast majority of suicides I have come across have been young men. There is no rhyme or reason for it.
Keeping quiet is not an option. People have to talk about this. It is all well and good telling people that they must talk, but they have to have somebody to talk to. At the moment, it can be very difficult for people from poorer families in more deprived areas, because a lot come from broken families so they do not always have great family support and people to talk to. Make no mistake, this is an epidemic, but it is not a means-tested epidemic. It does not matter whether a person is rich or poor, whether they are successful or unsuccessful, whether they come from a council estate or a country estate. It goes for anybody; it can affect anybody in any walk of life. I give a big shout-out for Rory and his group for doing that great work.
Probably everybody in the Chamber has been affected by suicide—my family has—but we do not talk about it. I travelled down with Graham this morning, and we had a long conversation. We MPs do not see inside our friends’ heads, and what goes on in their minds. Graham goes to bed every night and thinks about his son, but he thinks about his son with a rope around his neck—that is what goes through his mind. I cannot get my head around that: for a man to watch a little boy grow up from a baby, be his pride and joy, and then take his life in that way. Graham feels broken, he probably feels guilty, and he feels hopeless. I am here today to tell Graham that he is none of those things. He is not guilty and he is not hopeless. Graham is working with the Enlighten the Shadows suicide charity, and he is going to raise thousands of pounds for it. He is going to cycle 1,000 miles in 10 days, and he is doing some running as well. He has the support of the whole community. Graham wholeheartedly supports the idea of putting suicide prevention on the school curriculum, helping people and getting people to talk to save some lives.
I ask the Minister to please look at the families in the Public Gallery. They are broken people. We need to see less of those families coming to this place. We need to intervene, we need to get this subject on the school curriculum and we need to save lives.
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.
I thank Nick Fletcher for bringing forward this very important debate. As my hon. Friend 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?
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.
I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for bringing and leading such an important debate on the introduction of statutory suicide prevention teaching in our current RSHE curriculum. There have been many powerful contributions this afternoon, but none more powerful than having 3 Dads Walking actually with us in this Chamber. I also thank Mike, Tim and Andy for their incredible work on this campaign. Mr Owen is a fellow Norfolk man, although not from my constituency, so it is a great privilege to represent our county for him this afternoon, along with my hon. Friend James Wild beside me. Their efforts have clearly not gone unnoticed, and they will have a huge and significant impact on children and young people in future.
I thank those in my constituency, particularly the many mental health campaigners who I speak to, and Caroline Aldridge, who I know will watch the debate. She lost her own son to mental illness and she has done so much for others. I have also spoken to many others who have told me about their personal experiences and the tragedy of losing a child to suicide. I am honoured to participate in the debate on their behalf.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to 3 Dads Walking, including Tim, who is from west Norfolk. They have raised money and, vitally, raised awareness of the issue and of the support that exists by getting us talking about it today. The Government have rightly committed to a review, which I welcome and which I know the Minister will consider carefully. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should hear directly from 3 Dads Walking and others who have been directly affected by suicide to inform its decision?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I agree entirely. It is imperative that those with personal experience help to shape any future review and legislation that comes forward about the issue.
Mental health and mental health illness is a personal yet often isolating journey, despite the increased openness of conversation on that issue, which affects one in four of us throughout our lifetimes. Early intervention can make an astounding difference to the lives of those suffering, especially children and young people. When researching for this debate, I was devastated to learn that one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2020. That number is likely to have risen since.
A survey by YoungMinds found that suicide rates for young people aged 15 to 19 rose by a third between 2020 and 2021—from 147 to 198. Despite those staggering figures, about 70% of children and adolescents do not get appropriate interventions at an early enough age, which begs the question of how we can begin to overcome that.
As many hon. Members have said, one of the answers is to implement this change in our national curriculum. Since September 2020, RSHE has been a statutory part of the curriculum, yet suicide prevention, taught in a safe and age-appropriate way, is only optional. I am pleased that the Government, too, see the incredible value in supporting mental health, but I believe that a review of the RHSE curriculum is the right step to provide consistent mental health support across all schools nationally. Introducing statutory suicide prevention teaching in schools would not only target the group most affected by suicide—the under-35s, as we have heard many times this afternoon—but make sure that our children and young people are equipped as they move into adulthood.
According to research, one in three mental health problems in adults can be attributed to childhood experiences, with higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety disorders presenting in later life. Educating our children on mental health will surely only serve to benefit them later. Moreover, mental health teaching within structured school lessons will have incredible benefits through early intervention to prevent suicide, normalise mental health, as many have said, and encourage conversations with support systems, whether that be parents, teachers or external agencies such as Mind or Papyrus.
Furthermore, where better to start following Papyrus’s three key principles—support, equip and influence—than in the classroom? Teaching, of course, should be preventive, and extra care should be taken to signpost a source of support. Promoting positive mental health in schools, however, and putting in place support, including by working with external bodies, is a positive way forward. I have always believed that schools should have trained mental health first aiders within their staff, because the suicide figures that we are seeing today and have spoken about are too high. The wider support is there to provide suicide prevention teaching in schools, and I think this should be considered for implementation.
To conclude, supplying consistent mental health teaching across all schools nationally is a necessity. Although the Government have in the past said that they will be taking forward proposals to train designated senior leads for mental health in schools by 2025 and to fund mental health awareness training, the review of the RSHE curriculum to include suicide prevention should continue to be a priority for the Government. I think it should be brought in as quickly as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I congratulate Nick Fletcher on introducing the debate, but I pay particular tribute to Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen, whom we know collectively as 3 Dads Walking. My hon. Friend Liz Twist summed it up brilliantly: there could be no greater tribute to your beautiful girls than the work you are doing in raising awareness, in fundraising and in getting this petition. I agree with my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell that the Minister will probably not attend a more important debate in his career. We have already heard personal stories of people who have been affected by suicide, and I think we will be hearing more as the debate proceeds.
I fully support the proposals set out in the petition to make suicide prevention a compulsory part of the school curriculum. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central also made such an important point about converting walking to talking. I think we should bottle that phrase; it sums up where we need to go.
We know that 90% of suicides are associated with mental health issues but that 75% of people who take their own life had no prior contact with mental health services, so the earlier that children and young people are aware of and understand their feelings, but also where to access mental health services when they need them, the better. I would like to raise a few more points specifically in relation to deaths by suicide. In 2021, 5,583 people died by suicide.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, particularly in the light of her excellent health service background, long before she came to this House. I hope that I have now stood on my feet long enough to bring her back into the debate.
My hon. Friend is very kind, and I thank him.
Unfortunately, our much-loved 20-year-old nephew, Jack, died when he took his life. Jack was a lot younger than his 11 cousins and was doted on by all. At our regular Sunday morning breakfasts, he would be in the centre of the room, laughing at someone’s joke or telling everybody about the week that he had had at school. He was gentle, bright and kind. We are a very large family—my husband, John, is the eldest of seven and we all have our children; of course, Jack’s mum is John’s baby sister—but we are a very close one, and 19 months on from Jack’s death and a month after his inquest, to say we are all still devastated would be no exaggeration. This is absolutely nothing compared with the heartbreak his mum is going through. She has given me her permission to speak about the context of Jack’s suicide, in the hope that that may help others.
At 17 and without his mum’s knowledge, Jack was prescribed Roaccutane. Roaccutane is the trade name for isotretinoin, a medicine prescribed for severe acne, and has been available in the UK since 1983. It was also approved for use in the USA, under the trade name Accutane, in 1982. However, in July 2009, following the filing of thousands of lawsuits in which Accutane use was said to be associated with severe, life-changing health problems, both physical and psychological—in some cases many years after Accutane use—it was withdrawn from sale in the US.
In November 2020, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency announced that the Commission on Human Medicines had established an isotretinoin expert working group. This evidence review was prompted when the highest levels of fatalities associated with Roaccutane use was recorded in 2019 by the MHRA’s yellow card reporting scheme—an online portal for reporting adverse drug reactions. In total, 12 fatalities were reported in 2019—10 by suicide—and there were 85 serious incidents and 19 non-serious ones.
At Jack’s inquest last month, the coroner requested that the MHRA present evidence about the review’s findings. The scandal is that the review had been completed at the end of 2021, but the findings and recommendations had not been published because of “complications associated with Brexit”. It transpired that the recommendations, which 15 months on still have not been published, included requiring two doctors to agree to Roaccutane being prescribed to under-18s and prescribing it only after all other acne treatments had been tried. It is a serious drug, and it needs to be closely monitored.
The MHRA representative attending the inquest revealed that, since the completion of the review in 2021, there had been a further 81 adverse psychiatric events, including one suicide and one attempted suicide. On this issue, the family were pleased that the coroner had issued a prevention of future deaths report to the Health and Social Care Secretary, and the family looks forward to his early response and the publication of the 2021 review on isotretinoin. However, we believe that there needs to be an immediate awareness of the dangers of this group of drugs so that more of our young people and their families do not go through what we have been through.
The family also want to raise issues about the suicides of university students. Every year, three students per 100,000 will take their own life. Despite Universities UK’s “Suicide-safer universities” guidelines, there seems to be an ad hoc approach to how they are implemented. Prior to his death, Jack had been a first-year student at the University of York. In March 2020, he expressed concerns about his mental health to his departmental support officer, but although Jack was signposted to mental health support, this was not followed through. What Jack displayed was more or less word for word what was in the Universities UK’s guidelines on recognising signs and vulnerabilities, but it was not responded to as such, and it certainly was not flagged centrally.
We believe that, at registration, universities should get students to identify an individual—a parent, guardian or named advocate—for university staff to get in touch with if they have health concerns about a student. We also believe that there needs to be training for all university staff regarding suicide prevention. At this stage, I also pay tribute to Papyrus for its work on awareness training, particularly its campaign #SpotTheSigns, and similarly to the Samaritans for its training. That needs to be widespread not just in schools but in higher education institutions, so there is an understanding of the signs and symptoms.
We will never know exactly why our Jack took his life. We miss him every day, and want to do all that we can to prevent others from feeling that suicide is the only way out of the pain that they feel, because it is not.
It is a pleasure to serve under see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend 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 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.
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.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and to follow the many thoughtful, heartfelt and, in some cases, difficult speeches. I pay tribute to the families who are in the Public Gallery for their powerful campaign, and to 3 Dads Walking for all its work to raise awareness. My constituency of Barnsley East has the highest number of children, adolescents and young adults admitted to hospital for self-harm in Yorkshire and the Humber. For every 100,000 young people, 638 are admitted—almost one and a half times the national average.
Child and adolescent mental health services are at breaking point. Wait times for treatment are months and sometimes years, and local mental health charities simply cannot get the funding required to treat the people who are falling through the gaps of NHS treatment. A number of local charities are working hard with young people. Hey!, which came to Parliament last year to meet the health Minister, and the Samaritans support young people experiencing suicidal thoughts across Barnsley.
My office is regularly contacted by desperate parents who are not sure how to help their children through mental health crises and are terrified that self-harm will progress to suicide. Last year, a mother contacted me about her child, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had a very low mood, including suicidal thoughts. After they waited a year for treatment, it was delayed further as there was a debate about where it should take place. Because his school was in Rotherham, he was told that he must have his treatment there, despite the fact that he lived in Barnsley. That resulted in him being removed from his waiting list and placed on another one, which had a wait time of another 12 months. His mother was desperate and terrified that a longer wait for her son’s treatment could lead to his mental health deteriorating to the lowest point possible. Following an intervention from my office, a decision was made to start his treatment in Rotherham, but it should not have taken that.
The process may seem overly bureaucratic, but it is driven by low budgets and an inability to manage waiting lists when demand outstrips the available services by a huge margin. The mum says her son is doing much better since starting treatment, which of course is very welcome news, but it is unacceptable that, due to a lengthy waiting list, he was allowed to sink so low for so long before he was given the help he needed.
Another of my constituents was suffering from depression and severe anxiety. She missed a lot of school and occasionally self-harmed. She had to wait more than six months for an appointment with CAMHS, during which time her schoolwork suffered and she was put into lower sets for key subjects. Following her initial appointment, she had to wait a further three months to start treatment. At the time, she was studying for her GCSEs—a vital time in any young person’s life, when life chances can easily be decreased due to a lack of timely and effective treatment.
Those are just two examples of the many people who have been in touch, and sadly they are not unusual. The Government need an urgent plan to look at and deal with this crisis. I echo the words of my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell: this will be the most important debate that the Minister takes part in.
Teaching children and young people about good mental health and improving their resilience from a young age will be hugely beneficial in helping them to grow up and be aware of their feelings and the pressures that surround them. Life for the average teenager has changed beyond recognition in the past generation with the advent of social media, and of course there are other pressures at home, such as a lack of money and poverty. We must keep up with the changes if we are to give young people the best chances and skills to navigate the extra pressures that they face today.
However, if we are to give schools and teachers that extra responsibility of support, there must be a plan of action to accompany it. The answer to the mental health crisis is not to give teachers and support staff more work. As a former state school teacher, I know that staff are already struggling to find resources for the same, and in some cases less, pay. We need a wide-ranging approach. A review of the RSHE curriculum must take on board experts’ views about how to add worthwhile, appropriate contact to the school syllabus in a way that has a positive and educational impact on all young people.
As someone who has taught RSHE in school, I see the benefits and would welcome the change. Adding suicide prevention to the school curriculum would be an important step in the right direction. We must learn the lessons from this mental health crisis and use all possible means to safely equip the next generation of children as they navigate their way towards adulthood.
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.
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.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing this incredibly important debate and for his wider work on mental health, for which he has become well known since coming to the House.
Some 17 people a day take their own lives in the UK—not just today, but tomorrow, Wednesday, Thursday and onwards. That is just a statistic, but in the last hour and a half, we have heard many personal, emotional and tragic stories of the individual people—the names—behind that statistic. When I woke up this morning, I listened to Mike, Andy and Tim from 3 Dads Walking on Radio 4 as I was getting ready and packing my bags to catch the train to London. I heard about Emily, Sophie and Beth, which made it very personal, so I thank the 3 Dads for coming along. I also heard that they will be meeting the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister, and I look forward to hearing more about that.
When I returned to Parliament in 2019, I pledged and wanted to do more on suicide prevention and mental health after losing two close friends who took their own lives. I thank Liz Twist for the work that we do together on the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention. We had an emotional meeting last week with James’ Place, the Samaritans and Mike McCarthy, who told us about his son Ross and the walk that he will be doing with the Baton of Hope in June—lots of people are walking and raising awareness. Mike is coming to Parliament with Steve Phillip, who lost his son Jordan.
After listening to the debate for an hour and a half, I ask: what can we do? I am a dad to two teenage daughters and I often—in fact, almost every day—think that I would like to turn off the toxicity, pressures and unreal expectations of social media; I really feel as though I want to switch it all off on their behalf. I also want to erase the isolation, disruption and anxiety that the pandemic caused for young people. I do not think that either of those two wishes is achievable or realistic, so what is?
In memory of Emily, Sophie, Beth, Sean and all the other young people we have heard about, we should get behind the motion. We should see how we can introduce suicide prevention and more support for mental health in the school curriculum in an age appropriate and sensitive way, of course. I hope that we will do our bit here in Parliament and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. To Mike, Andy and Tim, I say, “If you keep walking, we will keep talking.”
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I start by thanking 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 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 Mike Kane spoke passionately about what is at stake if we do not act. My hon. Friend 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 Debbie Abrahams for bravely sharing the tragic story of Jack’s life and the lessons that need to be learned. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy made helpful points about the need for support in universities, while my hon. Friend 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.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your careful stewardship, Ms Nokes. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on the way he opened this important debate. It has been a debate with many deeply emotional testimonies from families who have lost loved ones to suicide, including a moving speech from Debbie Abrahams.
I also thank Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen for being here today and for their tireless efforts to increase awareness of suicide prevention. Through their campaign, 3 Dads Walking, Andy, Mike and Tim took on the challenge of walking between all four Parliaments, a 600-mile walk that has raised over £1 million to support suicide prevention, in memory of their daughters Beth, Sophie and Emily. Through the campaign, Andy, Mike and Tim shared personal stories of their kind, talented and much-loved daughters and the devastating impact that losing them has had on their parents, siblings, and wider families and friends. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has taken a keen interest in the campaign after she met Andy, Mike and Tim in 2022, when she was serving as Minister for Care and Mental Health. I know she has written to them recently and hopes to meet them again soon.
In 2020, as Minister for School Standards, I helped with the introduction of education on mental wellbeing through the relationships, sex and health education curriculum. As my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie said in her intervention, we need to be able to talk about mental health. That is an important first step, but I recognise the concerns raised in the petition and in this debate and will do my best to address them.
The death of any young person is tragic, and we need to do everything that we can to prevent it. It is heartbreaking to think that some young people have suicidal thoughts and do not know how to address them, and it is heartbreaking that families have to go through the loss of a child with possibly no indication of their state of mind, as movingly pointed out by my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch. We know that going to school can in and of itself be a protective factor for many young people, and we want schools to be places where emerging issues are identified and supported early and where pupils are taught to identify their own feelings and seek the right support at the right time. We need, as Mike Kane put it so well, to help young people back to the path of hope.
The statutory curriculum guidance for RSHE sets out the detailed content that pupils should be taught. They are taught about the building blocks needed to develop positive and safe relationships and good physical and mental health. The content includes how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns, such as anxiety and depression. Pupils are taught where and how to seek support, including who in school they can speak to if they are worried about their own or someone’s else mental wellbeing. I hope that that valuable knowledge will stay with children as they progress into adulthood, so that they will continue to look out for friends and know how to seek the help that is needed when they or someone they know is struggling and not able to take the first step in supporting themselves.
In addition to mental wellbeing, the health education curriculum provides content on the benefits of daily exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep, which can all have a positive impact on a young person’s health and wellbeing. Ensuring that pupils understand the links between good physical and mental health will provide them with valuable tools for managing their emotions. We want schools to develop curriculum content that is helpful to their pupils. Our approach is not to dictate how and when schools teach this content, but to ensure that they recognise that it must be covered in an age-appropriate and sensitive way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said. The RSHE statutory guidance is clear that the subject of suicide and self-harm can be discussed as part of this topic, but it is important that teachers approach it carefully, because we have to acknowledge that, taught badly, it has the potential to do harm. We need to consider the issues carefully before making it an absolute requirement.
We know that mental health awareness, as already covered by the curriculum, can have an impact on preventing suicide. We have been funding a large-scale randomised controlled trial of approaches to improving pupil mental wellbeing in schools. The trial will provide evidence on what works to support children’s mental wellbeing and how it can be delivered in schools. The “aware” arm of the trial is testing approaches to mental health awareness teaching, including a school-based programme for young people aged 13 to 17 called Youth Aware of Mental Health, for which there is good international evidence that it reduces suicidal ideation. That has the potential to add to the work that we have already done to improve teacher confidence and the quality of teaching by developing online training materials and implementation guides that give advice to schools and staff on how best to support pupils’ mental and physical health.
The issue of social media came up during the debate. Teaching children to be safe online is another aspect of suicide prevention that is covered by the existing curriculum. The inquests into the tragic suicides of Frankie Thomas and Molly Russell found that unsafe online content, and in Frankie’s case the failure of the school to support her in the online environment, contributed to their deaths. As Stephanie Peacock pointed out, life for this generation of teachers has changed beyond recognition, compared with the previous generation and generations as far back as mine.
We know that social media can be a force for good in relation to mental health. It is part of life and relationships for young people, but for it to be helpful we need to make sure the online environment is as safe as possible. Liz Twist raised that concern. Technology and the risks and harms related to it continue to evolve and change rapidly. As Rachael Maskell said, we need to be wary of the toxicity of TikTok, as well as of the dark web, which my hon. Friend Lee Anderson mentioned. As my hon. Friend Jason McCartney put it, we must switch off the unrealistic expectations of social media.
Through health education, we are equipping children and young people with the knowledge they need to use the internet and social media safely, and understand how to deal with the content they encounter online. In addition to the statutory health education content, we have published guidance for schools on teaching online safety, which helps them deliver internet safety content in a co-ordinated and coherent way across their curriculum.
To check that RSHE teaching is having an effect, we are monitoring its implementation. We want to test whether schools are implementing the requirements with sufficient quality to understand what helps and hinders good teaching. As the Prime Minister announced last Wednesday, we have brought forward the review of the RSHE statutory guidance, which was originally due to commence in September 2023. The current content I have already set out on mental health and wellbeing covers a large amount of what it is important in suicide prevention, but we will look further at this as a priority area for the review and decide whether to add requirements on teaching about suicide. As part of taking a comprehensive, evidence-based approach, we will make sure we speak to the experts in the field. We plan to start the review as soon as possible.
The Minister talked about testing whether RSHE is having an effect by monitoring its implementation, looking at what is being taught in schools and so on, but what is being done to take it beyond that and look at outcomes? It is one thing to prove that children are being taught about the dangers of drugs, but we must see an impact on the number of children suffering drug-related harm, getting involved in gangs or, in this case, going down that path. How do we judge whether it is having an impact, rather than just whether it is being implemented?
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.
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?
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 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.
I am looking at the petition organised by 3 Dads Walking. The Minister has given us some very important information about mental health support in schools, but this is quite simple: it is about talking to young people about suicide prevention and knowing that it is okay for them to talk about their feelings. Will the Minister say how he will approach that specific point in the RSHE review?
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.
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?
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.
I thank everybody for coming today. So many MPs have spoken, giving so many heartfelt speeches, that there are too many to mention, but it is all extremely appreciated. I am sure that the 3 Dads will also appreciate so many Members of Parliament taking time out of their busy schedules to come and discuss this important issue. I would like to specifically mention Liz Twist for the important work that she does on this subject. It is also wonderful to see that we have cross-party agreement on this. That is how this place really gets things done.
I would obviously like to thank the 3 Dads, Andy, Tim and Mike. You have been on a journey that nobody would want to go on. The deaths of your daughters, Sophie, Emily and Beth, have brought us all here together today, and, with assurances from the Minister on the work that will proceed, I am hopeful that we can really get the number of young people taking their own lives down to zero. When we see that number fall, it will be thanks to your work, and in memory of your three precious daughters.
That just leaves me to thank the Petitions Committee for bringing all of this work together. An awful lot happens behind the scenes, and I know that Andy, Tim and Mike will also appreciate the work it has done. I thank Papyrus for the work it has done, and all the other charities that have been mentioned. It has also been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. Thank you.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 623390, relating to suicide prevention and the national curriculum.