Suicides among young men have risen dramatically. Schools must help to ease the crisis, argues Anne Parry. Two years ago, my son took his life. He was 21 years old, intelligent, articulate and good looking, with a wide circle of friends both locally and in Leeds, where he was a student.
The greatest difficulty is understanding why it happened. I have spent the past two years researching suicide, and now recognise the lethal cocktail that culminated in such a tragic outcome: a deeply sensitive person who hid his feelings, several negative events leading to personal disappointment, an impulsive nature, mood swings and bouts of depression since puberty all set the scene for opting out of life when the relationship with his girlfriend ended.
One is tormented by the question of whether it could have been prevented. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among young people, after road accidents. While the number of females who die in this way is fairly constant, there has been a dramatic rise in the figures for young men over the past few years.
There is plenty of evidence that suicidal behaviour can be treated. The Government has set a target for a 15 per cent reduction in the suicide rate by the millennium; some health authorities have identified key areas in suicide prevention within their mental health services provision. Although completed suicide is comparatively rare, every year as many as 44,000 young people under the age of 25 are admitted to accident and emergency units in Britain, having deliberately harmed themselves.
What could I have done to help my son? As a science teacher with a special interest in health education, I thought I was well informed on the subject. But how ignorant I had been about mental health. Although we had discussed depression, I really had no idea what I was talking about. Words are so inadequate for the sufferer to convey how bad he feels. I am sure that a greater awareness and understanding of what can happen to your mind would have improved our management of the situation.
So, what do we teach about mental health in school? We are recommended to consider the psychological aspects of health as part of health education. Are we explaining to our pupils that depression and anxiety are common forms of mental illness, and that they are usually treatable and transient? Are we doing anything to take away the fear of "madness", and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness? Are we stressing the importance of sharing feelings? Are we telling them where to go for help?
Who is supposed to deliver this information? It is well known that teachers are reluctant to deal with sensitive health matters. I am unsure whether schools have the interest or funding to train staff in this area.
The Department for Education and Employment puts great emphasis on health education, but it is time to review its status within the curriculum. I question whether cross-curricular delivery works. It is difficult to monitor whether pupils are receiving a meaningful, structured education at secondary school. In my experience pupils do not give personal and social education the attention required because it is not an exam subject, and with current timetable constraints there may be fewer PSE lessons anyway. It would be interesting to know how many non-statutory topics are included in individual schools' curriculums.
I propose that health education be made a statutory subject in its own right, delivered by specialist teachers. Perhaps the subject could be included in the proposed national curriculum for teacher training.
For those of us at the chalk face who ask ourselves,"What do children get out of school?", there are two answers. First, their achievements. Our job is to encourage young people to fulfil their academic potential, and also to excel in areas such as sport, music and drama. Second, being fit for life. What good are qualifications if personal difficulties are not addressed? Both are equally important, and they should have equal status in the curriculum.
Let's open a debate on health education in our schools. We owe it to our children.
Anne Parry lives in Mold, Flintshire