Last reviewed 13 February 2017

Education writer, Michael Evans, reports on the rise of concern about mental health illness, how to discourage suicide and ways that schools can deal with this issue.

Suicide — a neglected killer

From the time that most of us have been old enough to sit up and take notice, the road safety message has been part of our everyday lives. National concern has led to a dramatic reduction in road deaths during the past 50 years, from well over 7000 a year to less than 2000 today.

However, during the same period little attention has been paid to suicide, with latest figures showing 6122 deaths a year. The sobering fact is that in 2017, for every two people who will die each day as a result of a road accident, another seven are likely to die as a result of suicide.

It is hard to believe that as recently as 1961, suicide was still a criminal offence and an unsuccessful attempt could result in a prison sentence. Today we like to think that we live in a more caring society, where we recognise that suicide is a symptom of mental illness rather than a crime.

Opening up about mental health issues

In a recent speech at the Charity Commission, the Prime Minister stressed the need for employers, parents, teachers and communities to work together to end the stigma surrounding mental ill health. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, together with Prince Harry, have joined this drive, stressing the importance of talking about mental illness and bringing the whole issue into the open.

According to the Department for Education (DfE), 9.8% of children and young people aged 5–16 have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder, with approximately a further 15% having less severe problems that put them at increased risk of developing mental health problems in the future.

Figures from the charity, YoungMinds, indicate that rates of depression among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years, with one in four young people in the UK now experiencing suicidal thoughts. Childline reports that in 2013/14 it held 34,517 counselling sessions with children who talked about suicide.

Thankfully with most children, talking about suicide is as far as it goes, but sadly some children find it hard to talk about their problems. Males in particular find this particularly hard, believing that talking about feelings or seeking support will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Self-harm as an early symptom

Often it all begins with self-harm. This can affect anyone of any age group, background or race, but one survey reported that one in three 18- to 21-year-olds had self-harmed at some time. This would not necessarily be due to a mental illness, but could simply have been a result of feelings of loneliness, isolation, stress, frustration or being angry about issues beyond their control.

When it becomes impossible to cope with family, school and friends, mounting pressures bring feelings of fear, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, self-hatred, unhappiness, depression and despair. If these feelings become unbearable, self-harm can seem to be the only way of dealing with them.

Cutting themselves is the most common form of self-harm and although it is not usually serious enough to warrant a visit to accident and emergency (A&E), according to YoungMinds, serious cases among under-18s have resulted in a rise of visits to A&E by 30% since 2003/04. Between 2001 and 2011 inpatient admissions for young people who had self-harmed increased by 69%.

Suicide as a last resort

Unfortunately many who self-harm go on to attempt suicide and, sadly, a significant number of these attempts are successful. We all know that life is precious and that the death of a loved one can be one of the most devastating events imaginable. The death of a child can be even harder to bear.

Suicide can be particularly devastating for bereaved families. Being killed in an accident or as a result of illness can usually be explained away as “an act of God”, but when people kill themselves, it brings additional feelings of devastation, incomprehension and guilt, with family members wondering how they were not able to stop this from happening.

The unfortunate fact is that someone who is seriously contemplating suicide will often be very good at concealing his or her true feelings and often the first indication that bereaved family members have thought that anything was wrong is when they read the final note that a loved one has left behind.

According to PAPYRUS, a support charity that was established by a group of parents whose children had all taken their own lives, in 2014 seven boys and six girls between the ages of 10 and 14, together with 138 boys and 50 girls in the 15–19 age group all committed suicide. YoungMinds reports that of all UK suicides each year, 10% are from the 15 to 24 age group.

Suicide figures are always higher for males in all age groups. One reason is that males often choose methods with a lower chance of survival, like throwing themselves under a train, while women tend to favour a method such as a drug overdose. Also, girls and women are more inclined to talk to someone about their problems.

The importance of talking to people and seeking help

The charity, Samaritans, has been helping to prevent suicide since 1953. It is adamant that the taboos and barriers that prevent people from seeking help when they are struggling to cope can only be broken down if people talk more openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings.

The mental health charity, Mind, stresses the importance of always asking for help. “Talking is hard but people can help us through hard times.” Talking to a GP is always a good start and Mind produces a booklet on how to prepare for a GP appointment to discuss these issues. However, YoungMinds reports that only 14% of UK suicides aged under 20 had any contact with specialist mental health services.

The vital role that schools can play

There are a number of ways in which schools can promote mental health.

  • The school should have a clear approach to the health and wellbeing of all pupils.

  • There should be a clear analysis of the needs of pupils with identified mental health problems, the support needed and how that should be applied. This will be backed up with regular reviews.

  • There should be clear systems and processes in place that will help staff identify children and young people with possible mental health problems.

  • There must be an effective strategic role for the teacher who acts as special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO).

  • The wishes of parents, carers and pupils themselves should always be taken into account, enabling them to participate in decisions.

  • There must be an ethos that sets high expectations of attainment with consistently applied support.

  • There should be continued professional development for all staff.

In schools, form tutors and class teachers are well placed to spot changes in a pupil’s behaviour that could indicate a problem. As a result, schools will often be able to support children at such times and intervene appropriately well before any mental health problems develop.

Most important of all is that a school must develop a culture that values pupils, giving them a sense of belonging and making it possible for them to know that they can talk about problems in a non-stigmatising way — and that someone will always listen to them and take their concerns seriously.