The tragedy of losing a child is unimaginable. Losing a child to suicide is worse. Those who have endured such horrors will know the grief is utterly excruciating. It’s no wonder that parents who have lost children in such a way become serious risks of suicide themselves.
My son Patrick was 25 when he took his own life, although I believe his suicidal thoughts began in childhood. It’s distressing to think that an average of four schoolchildren take their own lives every week in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The majority are teenagers, but some are still in primary school – and because the official statistics don’t recognise suicides by children under 10, that number is likely to be even higher.
The 200 children lost to suicide each year could be dozens more. Even if it’s dozens less it’s still a national scandal
Coroners seem particularly reluctant to find suicide verdicts in the case of children, perhaps in their desire to spare families further pain. Such is the stigma that still exists around suicide. The requirement to meet the criminal standard of proof, “beyond reasonable doubt”, also makes it difficult for them to reach this conclusion. The charity Papyrus, which works to prevent young suicide and of which I am now a trustee, continues to press the Department of Justice for change. Only when a suicide verdict can be recorded on the “balance of probabilities” will the true scale be revealed.
As things currently stand, the 200 schoolchildren lost to suicide each year in the UK could be dozens more. Even if it was dozens less, it would still be a national scandal. Those of us in the club that no one wants to join are aware that life will never be the same again. Yet the grief is not confined to parents – the suicide of a child has a devastating effect on siblings, family, friends and entire school communities.
Schools are in a unique position to help prevent these tragedies. Children spend much of their waking hours at school, so teachers are in the right place to recognise that a child might be at risk. But without effective training or guidance, the opportunity for such interventions are lost. So while a recent YouGov survey commissioned by Papyrus found that more than 10% of teaching professionals said a student shares suicidal thoughts with them at least once a term, only half felt confident they could provide adequate support.
As part of its current campaign – Save the Class of 2018 – which aims to increase teacher awareness of suicide prevention, Papyrus has created a free guide (pdf) to give schools and colleges the information they need to support students who might be at risk of suicide.
It includes guidance on prevention, such as how to improve connectedness, developing a suicide prevention policy, and helpful and unhelpful language to use. There’s intervention advice, which covers what to do when you have a concern, what to look out for, and how to ask about suicide. It covers what to do after a pupil has taken their own life, how to inform and support other students, and how to communicate with the media.
The guide is very deliberately aimed at the whole school community, because it could be a teacher, secretary, dinner lady or support assistant who first identifies a vulnerable student. The challenge now is making all of our 20,000-plus UK schools aware of it.
Of course, this is not just a school issue, but a societal one. Suicide prevention is everyone’s business, but human nature tends to persuade us, until fate intervenes, that tragedies like suicide affect other people and not us.
Had I, as a headteacher, been told just how critical it was to have a suicide prevention plan in place, I’m pretty confident that I would have acted on it. Every school community we get on side could help to save even more young lives.
In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
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