From the North: Should suicide prevention be put on the school curriculum?

In this episode of From the North we ask should suicide prevention be taught in schools? Credit: ITV News

In the latest episode of From the North we ask should suicide prevention be taught in schools?


A teenager who unsuccessfully tried to take her own life says adding suicide awareness to the school curriculum could have helped her understand her feelings.

Martha, whose name has been changed, has attempted to take her life multiple times since first noticing she was struggling with her mental health aged just 15.

But, despite opening up in school about how she was feeling, she says the support was not there to help her, and instead her feelings were "normalised" by teachers.

"It felt kind of normalised," she said. "I think it wasn't until I was quite deep into it that I was like, this isn't okay and I do need some help."I remember going to a teacher about self-harm and she was like, 'Oh, well, the majority of people I know self-harm. It's nothing unusual'.

"That shocked me. But also it made it more normalised.

"I think looking back now, I remember like at lunchtime, most people didn't eat lunch and most people kind of skipped lunch or skipped meals and that was normalised in the environment."

Martha was 18 when she made her first attempt to take her own life, she went on to try several more times.

She says a "high pressure" environment at school, coupled with many struggling with the same things meant teachers were often unaware of what to do to help.

Although she undertook Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) lessons, Martha says the topic of mental health was mentioned only once or twice a year.

She believes had suicide prevention been on the curriculum both teachers and pupils would have been in a better position to help.

"We had a few lessons, but it was very kind of basic lessons," she said.

"I think it should have begun at an earlier age because by the time it was spoken about, everyone was kind of already going through it and already struggling.

"There were teachers that were great but also teachers that really didn't have the understanding or the knowledge and almost made me feel as if I was just another person that was struggling within the school system.

"I think it's kind of the perfect solution to start that early support and get people feeling that they can talk and they can open up and they do know what to do if they're supporting someone else, whether that's a friend or family member."

'Martha' says a lot of the mental health struggles she had as a student were normalised by her school. Credit: ITV News

Martha's experience is far from unique, and every year around 200 school children in the UK take their own lives - around four children every week.

With suicide the biggest killer of under 35s in the country, the campaign to ensure it is spoken about it one the 3 Dads Walking have taken up.

Mike Palmer, Andy Airey and Tim Owen are campaigning to get suicide prevention made a compulsory part of the school curriculum.

Martha says the proposed compulsory lessons would have made her feel "a bit less alone" and able to open up more about how she was feeling.

Martha added: "I think the first thing I realised I didn't understand well, I kind of normalised that in my head and was like,' oh things are fine'.

"It took having a panic attack at school for a teacher to realise that I was struggling, but by that point I had already had previous months of struggling before that.

"It would have been a lot easier if I'd have been able to say, this is going on, how can you help or how can I help myself, or Where can I get support for it?"

The lessons are something some in the medical profession say could help them long term, with hopes it could ease the pressure on GPs and A&E services.

Dr Helen Wall, who has 13 years experience working in General Practice, says in her professional opinion there is plenty to back up that this method can work.

"There's good evidence that actually talking about these things doesn't increase the amount of suicide, but it actually allows people to have those open lines of communication so they can say how they're feeling," she says.

"They can talk about issues, because a lot of the young people we see when they're feeling like this they're just consumed.

"They're consumed by the amount of emotion, the amount of feeling. They don't see that there's any way out of this.

"And once they start to open up and be able to talk and share how they're feeling, they can often get support to work through those emotions and actually rationalise them."

But she says she appreciates it will not happen overnight.

Dr Wall added: "It’s easy for me to sit here and say it's an easy thing to do.

"I've got friends who are teachers. I know they're under an immense amount of pressure.

"So I think it is challenging for the government to just say, you know, on Monday you have to change and do this.

"But I think the gravity of it, and the gravity of not doing it, is quite serious.

"If they can find a way to get just a part of this into schools to have these conversations and talk about it. I think it will be beneficial for all."

Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen from 3 Dads Walking finishing their charity walk at Westminster Credit: ITV Granada Reports/Mel Barham

Mike, Andy and Tim - known as the 3 Dads Walking - have each lost a daughter to suicide.

The dad's came together following the deaths of Beth Palmer, Sophie Airey and Emily Owen, initially to support each other.

In 2021 they decided to walk between their three homes in Sale, Greater Manchester, Cumbria and Norfolk.

They raised more than £1 million for the suicide prevention charity PAPYRUS as well as awareness of suicide itself.

In 2022 they joined forces again, in a bid to get the government to put suicide prevention on the national curriculum.

After walking more than 600 miles between all four UK parliaments, and gathering more than 150,000 signatures on a petition, MP Nick Fletcher is backing the dads, and has pledged to introduce a debate on the issue in parliament.

At Beth's old school in Sale, Assistant Head Teacher James Reeve says making teaching around suicide and mental health would be a "helpful development".

He added that although there are fears talking about it could make things worse, the potential of not talking about is "a lot more dangerous".

The dads say all they really want is to make a permanent difference.

Andy said: “The real end point is getting it onto the curriculum and a compulsory part of the curriculum, because once you start doing that that starts to change things forever.

"Getting young people trained up so they can help themselves. They’re going to carry these skills into adult life."

So far raised the dads have raised more than £1 million for national suicide prevention charity PAPYRUS.

It is a charity that not only provides a helpline for young people in crisis, but also goes into schools reactively when someone has taken their own life.

The charity said: "PAPYRUS works in schools every day we can’t do this alone.

"We rely on parents, governors, teachers and other school staff to help us get messages to children about keeping themselves suicide-safe.

"Most of all we need the cooperation of children and young people themselves.

"They are already aware and want adults to join in what they are already all too well versed in: they already know what pressures they face; they already know what helps: they need adults to listen to them and hear their stories.

"Schools already do so much. They arguably red to do less doing and more hearing.

"We need the State to join this campaign too. Schools and colleges can only do so much but Government can support that.

"Placing suicide prevention on the curriculum gives a signal witness to teachers and parents that we, as a country, honour children, see them, care about them and want them to be themselves, whatever their academic or technical ability.

"I’m delighted to hear that the petition has finally brought about a debate. Any such conversation about suicide prevention can only lead to increased support and more dialogue.

"3 Dads Walking have really opened up an important debate already and it will be good to see parliamentarians joint that discussion.

"PAPYRUS is keen to see children having access to suicide prevention in the classroom so that nowhere is off limits for life-saving conversations."

Worried about mental health?

PAPYRUS

For practical, confidential suicide prevention help and advice you can contact PAPYRUS HOPELINE247 on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org

Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK. PAPYRUS aims to reduce the number of young people who take their own lives by breaking down the stigma around suicide and equipping people with the skills to recognise and respond to suicidal behaviour.

HOPELINE247 is the charity’s confidential 24 hour helpline service providing practical advice and support to young people with thoughts of suicide and anyone concerned about a young person who may have thoughts of suicide.

HOPELINE247 is staffed by trained professionals, offering a telephone, text and email service.

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CALM

CALM, or the Campaign Against Living Miserably, runs a free and confidential helpline and webchat – open from 5pm to midnight every day, for anyone who needs to talk about life’s problems.

It also supports those bereaved by suicide, through the Support After Suicide Partnership (SASP).

  • Phone their helpline: 0800 585858 (Daily, 5pm to midnight)

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James’ Place

Suicide prevention centre in Liverpool offering life-saving support to men in suicidal crisis.

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Mind

Mind is a mental health charity which promotes the views and needs of people with mental health issues.

It provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.

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Samaritans

Samaritans is an organisation offering confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.

  • Phone 116 123 (a free 24 hour helpline)

  • Email: jo@samaritans.org

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YoungMinds

YoungMinds is a resource with information on child and adolescent mental health, but also offers services for parents and professionals.

It is the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people's mental health, and wants to make sure all young people can get the mental health support they need, when they need it

  • YoungMinds Textline - Text YM to 85258

  • Phone Parents' helpline 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am - 4pm)

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