Suicide is a very difficult topic and one that, too often, crosses the mind of many young people, including school children. That is why today – on World Suicide Prevention Day – I am glad to welcome the publication of Welsh Government’s first ever suicide and self-harm guidance to support teachers.
Suicide and young people
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people. The latest figures, released last week, from the Office of National Statistics show a marked increase in young people dying by suicide and a worrying increase in the number of the number of girls dying by suicide.
Suicide is preventable, which is why I am committed to raising awareness of suicide prevention. I really believe that, as a country, we must do all we can to intervene and stop preventable deaths.
Supporting young people, teachers and schools
The tragic fact is that in 2017, some 226 school children across the UK lost their lives to suicide. Schools are clearly very much in need of guidance to support teachers and other professionals who regularly come into contact with children and young people.
Indeed, in my role as chair of the National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee, I called for such guidance on talking about suicide and self-harm to be issued to schools in our landmark report Mind Over Matter. I am pleased Welsh Government listened to us and is this week launching guidance to support school staff in responding to young people who are suicidal or self-harming.
The challenge, now, will be implementation and going even further. The guidance is strong on how schools should respond to young people who are obviously struggling but it is desperately important we provide a bridge to help schools reach the young people that no one realises are struggling, the ones who we don’t know about until it is too late.
We urgently need to be in a position where we are not simply responding to young people in obvious distress but are ensuring sensitive discussions about suicide take place appropriately in all schools.
I have long believed that mental health is everyone’s business in a school, so at the same time as welcoming the new guidance I will continue to keep Welsh Government’s feet to the fire to ensure a sensitive approach to suicide prevention becomes an accepted part of the school timetable.
Schools and the education system have a key role in building emotional resilience. The Mind Over Matter report, published in April 2018, provided a road map for a step-change in support for children’s emotional and mental health.
At the heart of our recommendations were calls for greater emphasis on resilience-building, and early intervention – to embed good mental health and coping strategies that will stay with youngsters for the rest of their lives.
Improving the future for children, young people and adults
I firmly believe that if we get this right for our children and young people, so many other things will fall into place. They will learn better, they will attain more, they will get better jobs but they will also be more resilient adults. I think there is a direct link between getting this right and stemming the increase in mental health problems and in the number of adult suicides too.
We are not suggesting that teachers should become mental health experts. But we would like to see everyone who cares, volunteers or works with children and young people trained in emotional and mental health awareness to help tackle issues of stigma, promote good mental health and enable signposting to support services where necessary.
We were told during the inquiry that a lot of teachers are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I have spoken to teachers who have told me they are afraid to go home at night because they are the last line of defence for a young person who is self-harming and they don’t know what to do.
That is why we are pushing for the inclusion of basic mental health training – including how to talk about suicide – to be part of initial teacher training and continuous professional development. We really need to enable people who work with children and young people to feel comfortable having difficult conversations.
The importance of enabling people to talk about suicide is key. As a member of the joint ministerial group set up in response to Mind Over Matter to accelerate work on a whole-school approach to children’s mental health, I often find myself saying that if we focus on compassion on building compassionate relationships with young people then it will follow that mental health becomes everyone’s business in a school.
I welcome this new guidance as a step forward in building that compassionate and kind approach, I hope it will encourage everyone to see that we all have a role to play in suicide prevention.