THIS month has seen reports that the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are in crisis.
Teachers rather than professional mental health workers are now in the front line, trying to support young people with mental health problems at the same time as ensuring the issues do not erupt in the classroom and cause chaos.
Stress levels among teachers are rising rapidly as a result. But as well as staff shortages, budget cuts and increased demand stretching CAMHS and putting pressure on teachers, there is another consequence — the rising number of suicides and self-harm incidents among young people.
The number of young people who kill themselves each year is a stark reminder of the human cost of governments’ failure to invest in children’s wellbeing and prevent the onset of mental illness. The loss of a young life is always shocking and distressing, but in the case of suicide there is an added sense of despair and helplessness.
Suicide is now the second-most common cause of death in young men and women in Britain, yet stigma and shame continue to blight those trying to cope — and mental health is never politically popular. Office for National Statistics (ONS) data allows us to examine what has been happening over a 30-year period, from 1981 to 2011.
Official press releases highlighted a recent jump in the annual number of suicides among people aged 15 and over — 6,045 in 2011, compared to 5,608 in 2010. An extra 437 suicides. The ONS figures show that the suicide rate “increased significantly” from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 11.8.
The corresponding figures for people aged between 15 and 25 were 14.1 and 14.8 deaths per 100,000, so young people are more at risk of suicide than older people. But looking at the 30-year trend we can note some worrying patterns.
For 15 to 19-year-olds there were an average of four suicides every week, while for 19 to 25-year-olds there were an average of 14 per week. Together, on average, nearly three young people between 15 and 25 years old committed suicide every day.
The total number of young people who killed themselves between 1981 and 2011 was 21,006, or over 700 a year. The stats also show that during the peak years of unemployment — 1983/4, 1992/3 and 2009/10 — there were higher than average numbers of suicides among young people.
As youth unemployment nears a million, there is no doubt that the figures for 2014/5 will make grim reading. Much research has shown a correlation between poverty, unemployment and youth suicide.
Recording suicide around the country varies and is understood to be an under-representation of the actual number of cases, since many unusual deaths remain unexplained due to a lack of evidence — a corroborating note or other indication of intent.
Coroners are reluctant to record an official suicide verdict where there is any doubt, and also no doubt wish to protect the feelings of grieving parents and family where possible. The previous Labour government launched the National Suicide Prevention Strategy in 2002, with a target of reducing suicides by at least 20 per cent by 2010.
This took place alongside an unprecedented increase in NHS funding and specific hefty increases in CAMHS budgets. The target was achieved in terms of suicides among young people and it happened to coincide with a period of strong economic growth.
It seems unlikely that such targets will continue to be met in a prolonged recession and under shrinking budgets. Some MPs are concerned about CAMHS, and the Commons health select committee is starting a parliamentary enquiry into it according to the Guardian.
But teachers, parents, CAMHS staff and young people will draw little comfort from this. The last national report from the NHS, in 2008, demanded increased training for all staff working with young people, more specialist resources and extra investment in early intervention services to prevent problems arising in the first place.
The same year Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the capitalist crisis and the austerity which put paid to those recommendations — at a terrible cost in young people’s lives and devastated families.
Steven Walker is the author of The Social Worker’s Guide to Child and Adolescent Mental Health, published by Jessica Kingsley.