Time to extend helping hand to children in care

23rd October 2009 at 01:00

The apparent double suicide of Georgia Rowe and Neve Lafferty (far right) raises questions about the pastoral care offered to young people. Without delving inappropriately into this incident, it is fair to say that children in residential care appear to be more vulnerable to mental illness than children living with their families.

In 2006, there were, according to the World Health Organisation, seven suicides among the seven million under-16s in the UK. Over and above those, there were 37 "undetermined deaths". Post-mortems did not establish certain cause of death, leaving an open verdict.

All suicides are deeply traumatic, and there are many more distressed young people out there who do not take their own lives. Colleagues in the teaching profession report greater numbers of pupils with mental illnesses than before. Teachers and lecturers who teach psychology are aware of students in virtually all their classes who suffer from some form of mental-health problem. Maybe such information is more easily disclosed because of the nature of the subject we teach, or because the young people in front of us mistakenly believe we are qualified to give clinical advice.

There is no doubt that young people are operating under huge pressure. Compare today's child to the child of yesteryear. The latter spent much of his time outdoors, playing imaginative games and returning home at regular intervals to be fed. Junk food was scarcely on the menu and microwaveable meals had not been invented. This child watched limited television and probably read complex stories, creating well-developed neural pathways in the brain, as he ducked and dived with the heroes and heroines and linked the truths of literature, albeit unconsciously, to the joys and sorrows of his life.

In contrast, today's growing child can't go outside unsupervised for fear a stranger will kidnap him. He is exposed to an epidemic of computer technology, an endless diet of screen viewing and game-playing to which he is addicted. Reading for pleasure is a rare occurrence, so intellect fails to blossom.

Along with this, we inculcate our children with the celebrity cult, a glittering world of gleaming teeth and botoxed beings who ooze superficiality which our kids see as reality. When real life happens in the form of heartbreak, family disruption, disappointment and other agonies, they have not been taught to cope. The realm of Britain's Got Talent might be escapist fun on a Saturday night, but it provides no sustenance for teenage spirits wracked with angst.

Sometimes, despairing young people feel there is insufficient support for them. One of my cousins killed himself aged 24 because he needed professional help and, having been on a waiting list for months, he had given up hope. The day after he died, the appointment came through, but it was far too late.

Crucially, care homes are too often staffed by underpaid and poorly- qualified personnel who do not have the necessary skills or the knowledge to support very vulnerable youngsters. Isn't it tragic that, in the latest terrible case, the only hand available was that of a fellow sufferer in a grim suicide pact? It is a damning judgment on our society.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosopy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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