Editorial: What kind of world leaves children suicidal?

7th November 2014 at 00:00

It has been a desperately sad week for childhood.

A 16-year-old boy was sentenced to life in prison for killing teacher Ann Maguire, a crime as incomprehensible as it was horrific. His identity was formally disclosed by the court (it had already been revealed on social media) but it was hard to see what, or whose, justice was served by the naming of a child. He has already been moved from a young offenders' institution because of threats of violence and is on suicide watch.

Meanwhile, the charity ChildLine reported that nearly 6,000 children between the ages of 7 and 18 had told them over the past year that they had attempted suicide, a 43 per cent increase on 2012-13. It also revealed that its counsellors held more than 34,500 sessions with children who wanted to talk to someone about their suicidal thoughts, up 116 per cent since 2010-11.

How have we reached such a place? What is it that is making children so despairing? In its report, On the Edge, ChildLine cites relationship breakdowns, loneliness and abuse. It also highlights the role of the internet.

As Peter Liver, the director of ChildLine, points out: "The internet never sleeps and this is putting enormous pressure on children - they can't go home and escape bullying like children could 10 years ago."

But online bullying is not the only problem. We also have the graphic blogs and videos depicting self-harm, anorexia and suicide; the pressure to succeed, to be beautiful; the relentless porn; the sexting; the inescapable sexualisation of children. And young girls are not the only ones being exploited - look no further than some of the repugnant online comments from adults this week about Romeo Beckham, a boy who is just 12 years old.

The demands of a 247 digital world are putting pressures on all of us, but if we adults find them stressful, it is hard to imagine what it must be like for the young. They have to navigate a vast and frightening terrain when we give them few instructions, no map and, crucially, no moral compass. We leave them to their own devices, literally.

It is tragic that many children are so distressed that the only way out they can see is to take their own life. Who can they turn to for help? Budget cuts have left child and adolescent mental health services with "serious and deeply ingrained problems", according to a Health Select Committee report. The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Hilary Cass, warns that young people's mental health is becoming a "hidden epidemic", with one in 10 children having some form of mental health problem.

It is ironic that children have more places to talk than ever before - Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter - but few where anyone will listen. School is certainly one, and good pastoral care is vital. But that can't be the only place, and there are still many questions on how best to help troubled children.

For the Maguire family, however, there are sadly no answers. Don Maguire, Ann's husband, summed it up poignantly in his impact statement to the court. "We shall never know why, but if age bars the full responsibility, who owns the missing part?"



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