THE number of suicide attempts by adolescents in the Edinburgh area is rising. Many have been excluded from school or are persistent truants.
The statistics, revealed in interim research findings presented to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Birmingham, were underlined this week when the British Medical Association warned that suicide is a prime cause of death among young men in Scotland.
The Edinburgh study, on patients aged between 13-17 admitted to the Royal Infirmary poison centre, shows a sixfold increase in suicide attempts over the past 30 years. In 1997, teenagers were involved in three-quarters of all attempted suicides admitted to the centre. Fourteen per cent had been excluded from school at the time while 20 per cent were regular truanters.
A multi-agency youth strategy programme has been campaigning for the past 15 years for the inclusion in mainstream education of pupils who display emotional and behaviourial needs. But Glenn Rodger, Edinburgh's head of pupil support, said: "This is a group of young people who have a very complex pattern of needs."
The research report identified problems with teachers and peers, including bullying and excessive academic pressure, as reasons why young people feel driven to suicide. These factors coincide with previous research into mental health carried out by the Health Education Board for Scotland.
Elizabeth Burtney, a mental health researcher, said: "Young people need support and to be able to talk about these things, so they don't get to the stage they feel they have nothing to live for."
Brian Kirkaldy, chairman of the Association of Principal Educational Psychologists, believes the rise in suicide attempts relates "to bigger social trends".
"Young people have more independence at an earlier stage, are more open to peer and other cultural influences, and have greater access to illegal and dangerous substances," Mr Kirkaldy said.
The extent of copycat behaviour also had to be examined. "There is certainly a spread factor amongst peer groups," Mr Kirkaldy said. Further study was needed to see if there were networks among young suicide cases.
Helen Kay, programme manager for children and young people with the Mental Health Foundation, said: "More educational psychology time should be freed up from carrying out assessments so that more therapy can be provided." The problem has been exacerbated by a shortage of educational psychologists.
Ms Kay said that a recent Mental Health Foundation report on Bright Futures advocated that teachers undertook in-service training on child development issues, to give then "an understanding of the sources of mental health difficulties and straightforward interventions such as behaviour management techniques".
A member of staff should be designated as a mental health co-ordinator and there should also be a range of health promoting services after school and in youth clubs, "which are youth friendly and where professionals communicate to young people that problems are being taken seriously".
The Mental Health Foundation, a UK-wide organisation, is about to appoint staff in Scotland to help implement the recommendations in the Bright Futures report.