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A double taboo

As I prepared to write this, I reminded myself that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. A day set aside by several groups, including the World Health Organisation, to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. Whilst the name suggests prevention, which of course is the ultimate aim, activities that will be taking place today, around the world, are focused upon awareness. As I sit here, a thought resonates, I guess to many it might be shocking that in the twenty-first century, there remains a taboo around suicide and that we actually need to set aside a day, in effort to break this.

I expect everyone reading this blog will have had professional experience of suicide, and a number will have been impacted personally too. Tragically the numbers speak for themselves. According to the ONS, in 2019 nearly 5700 people, in England and Wales, took their own life. Since 2018 these numbers have been rising compared with some stability in the preceding decade. Whilst there are as yet no statistics for 2020, it is reasonable to believe that with issues relating to lockdown, potential unemployment and a disproportionate financial impact on the self-employed, that we witnessed last year, at best numbers will have stayed high, at worse they will have got higher.

Of course, the ONS produce statistics, that is what they do, but behind each of those numbers is a person and a family left trying to understand. In our professional worlds, these are often children left needing to find an explanation, but all too frequently it can be parents struggling to comprehend why their child has died. More than 200 children and young people take their own lives every year.

So it’s children who are at the root of my message to you today. There is a strong argument to say that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the life chances of the young, and no doubt we will have all been part of making difficult decisions that have affected children over the last year, be that about needing to temporarily close schools or about the frequency and way in which we visit the most vulnerable. In unprecedented times we have had to make unprecedented choices, and whilst there is no room to criticise decisions made in good faith, this year, on World Suicide Prevention Day, possibly over any other year, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to consider the mental wellbeing of the young and their experiences of Covid, for if suicide remains a taboo, when a child takes their own life that taboo is double.

As I said at the beginning, today is about awareness and spreading a message. Whilst there is no doubt that we all want to take positive action, in the children’s workforce that is what we do, maybe today is a day just to reflect quietly, catch up with someone who we know might benefit from a chat, or take a few minutes to talk to someone less aware about breaking the taboo of suicide.

As you are all aware, good practice suggests we should always signpost to support whenever we open a discussion about suicide and I would like to highlight that the PHE ‘Help is at hand’ resource which can be found HERE has been updated to include information regarding children and young people who have been bereaved (see page 40). The Samaritans helpline can be contacted on 116123.

Nigel Minns - Executive Director, People Directorate - Warwickshire County Council

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