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Over the past couple of weeks in the papers there’ve been not one, not two, but three reports about children’s, and particularly teenagers’, increasing mental health problems and risk of suicide – not exactly what you want to read ever, and definitely not when your children and grandchildren are in the middle of the stress of GCSEs.
First came the headline ‘Surge in cases of deliberate self-poisoning by teenagers’ about research by the University of Nottingham. Apparently, ‘growing numbers of teenagers are deliberately poisoning themselves with alcohol and pharmaceuticals’ and the charity YoungMinds sees this as confirming that the number of teenagers with serious mental health problems is growing. A week later came research from the University of Manchester which looked specifically at factors that had contributed to suicide committed by children and young people under 20. These included bereavement, health issues, exams or exam results, bullying, family issues and internet use such as cyber bullying and even looking for information about how to commit suicide. Then last week, on the BBC news was a third report from the children’s commissioner, no less, that said that over a quarter of children referred to mental health services in 2015 including some who were suicidal, received no help. She warned that ‘the system was playing Russian roulette with their health’. Can things get much worse?
The three reports detailed awful statistics which I won’t go into here, but they did confirm what the NSPCC were actually seeing, i.e. an increase in children seeking its help. Childline had also said that ‘last year more than half of the young people we referred to other agencies were suicidal’. And I know I’ve banged on about stress in schools relating to exams such as SATS and GCSEs quite a lot in blogs over the past few years and I make no apology for touching on it again since I have four grandchildren, one of whom is in the middle of GCSEs, another who’s 13 so has already done year 6 SATS, another of 11 who’s just gone through them and a six year old who, if the exam system remains the same, has all this in front of him. So I am going to mention just one statistic from the Manchester research: exam-related stress. It showed up as one of the highest factors contributing to the suicides they analysed at 29%, one per cent above bereavement.
And it’s not as if these three reports have come out of the blue. Back in May 2013, I read that there’d already been a huge amount of research into children’s wellbeing which showed that as a result of school pressure more and more children were experiencing stress-related conditions. For example, research last June commissioned by the NUT had the title ‘Exam factories: the impact of accountability factors on children and young people’ and this found that increasing numbers of children and young people had school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems. And if that’s not enough, just think about how children are affected if they also have one or more of the other factors listed in the Manchester University research. A year ago, a Yougov poll for the Prince’s Trust reported that one in 10 British young people felt they have ‘nothing to live for’. Words fail me.
Are the powers-that-be listening? Well, in January this year the government pledged £1 billion to overall mental health services – sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But a letter published at the beginning of this year signed by hundreds of psychiatrists and other mental health experts said that austerity policies had been ‘profoundly disturbing’ to people’s mental health – in the Independent I read that the need for services had increased by a ‘staggering 20%’ over the past five years. The impact of benefit cuts have had a huge effect on family stress by increasing poverty which, as the Nottingham research highlights, is a major factor in children and young people turning to alcohol and medication, such as paracetamol, and to self-harm. Other articles pointed to the long hours working parents are putting in and the lack of family time. Meanwhile, of course, there have been huge cuts to mental health services – services for children and young people alone were cut by £25 million last year. One commentator writing in the Independent said that the figure for overall mental health services really needs to be more like £11 billion.
Enough already – this is all past appalling. What can parents do if they fear that their child or teenager could be at risk of self harming or worse? I read that talking to them at ‘an appropriate time’ is helpful. But how do you know when ‘an appropriate time’ is? Some parents might worry that simply talking about suicide might put it into the child’s mind as an option. Also, there can be a dilemma about how you actually put things to them: on the Victoria Derbyshire programme after the Nottingham research came out, one young man who’d self harmed made the point that if he didn’t express his feelings he was congratulated for being strong, adding ‘you should be congratulated for being strong in expressing your weakness’. And where can parents get helpful information? A GP is a good start and there’s also advice on www.nspcc.org.uk and www.youngminds.org.uk, for example.
And can we do anything about changing things? Has anyone out there got any ideas? I guess we could start with the exam-ridden education system by taking action like Let kids be kids did a few weeks ago. We have to do something – this simply can’t go on.
*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.