Keeping out of harm's way

4th January 2008 at 00:00
The Choose Life programme aims to reduce instances of suicide and self-harm, writes Brian Hayward.

Today and every day in Scotland two people commit suicide. It is a depressing statistic and one with a sad relevance to school and college students.

Even though it is generally recognised that the statistics for young people are always underestimated, one fifth of the deaths of 15 to 24- year-olds are acknowledged as suicide, which comes second to accidental death in causing loss of life.

Although girls and young women are the most likely to try to end their lives, suicides among boys and young men have doubled since 1985. The causes for their despair are the usual suspects: broken families, academic pressure, relationship problems and substance misuse. It is appropriate, therefore, that a phrase from the film Trainspotting provides the title for Choose Life, the Scottish Government's 10-year programme aimed at reducing the national suicide rate by 20 per cent.

Scotland's 32 local authorities have been allocated pound;15 million from 2003-08 for training and prevention programmes. Margo Taylor, the Choose Life development officer for South Ayrshire, has a fairly representative statistical backdrop to work from. In 2003 there were seven suicides in her local authority, and in 2004 1,300 cases of self-harm were recorded at accident and emergency units.

This last figure rings alarm bells about the incidence of self-harm among schoolgirls, and gives Ms Taylor another reason to look to the classroom as her main target.

"This may be no more than a personal opinion," she says, "but school is very, very important. You have to give extra support to the kids that need it, when and where it is required. If the family situation is weak, then school is the next biggest thing in their lives."

Ms Taylor casts her net as wide as she can by using education through drama. Following a successful pilot scheme at Prestwick Academy last year, she has this session again engaged the Ayr-based Borderline Theatre Company to deliver workshops to S1 and P7 classes on the general themes of self-worth, personal well-being and mental health.

This last is important, for South Ayrshire calculates that a quarter of all suicides have had previous contact with mental health workers.

The workshops themselves have been conducted by Donna Vivers, a Borderline associate producer for lifelong learning. Last term she was working at Belmont Academy in Ayr, using the personal and social education time for the nine first-year classes.

The general alert that her workshops send out to the young people is supported with advice on coping especially directed towards averting self-harm or suicide itself.

This term she will deliver much the same programme to the senior pupils at the academy's six feeder primaries, Alloway, Braehead, Doonfoot, Holmston, Kincaidston and Tarbolton.

As a very ambitious "hinge" between the two programmes, she has devised a scheme in which for a fortnight some of the Belmont pupils visited the six primary schools, introducing the themes of the workshops through a kind of forum theatre, where the audience are invited to stop the action at any point and intervene in the story.

This type of work is a testing proposition for even practised actors, but the five from Belmont Academy acquitted themselves with admirable composure when I saw them at Braehead Primary.

Their workshop topic was bullying, one of the areas Ms Vivers had covered at Belmont. "We also worked on attitudes to alcohol, achievement and ambition, and family relationships," she explained, "but always in touch with the guidance teachers.

"For the primary schools, the focus will be tighter on the importance of friends, or working together, and moving up."

Borderline T 01292 281010.

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