Report warns on rising child suicide in England

Ella Rhodes reports.

Two children a week were assessed to have died by suicide in England between April 2019 and March 2020, according to a recent report from the National Child Mortality Database (NCMD). The thematic report explored common characteristics of those aged 17 and under who died by suicide, or whose deaths were explored by a Child Death Overview Panel, during this period.

Suicidal behaviour among children is a public health priority, wrote Professor Louis Appleby, Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group for England, in the report’s foreword. ‘Suicide has risen in this age group for at least a decade, in contrast to the more fluctuating pattern in adults. Nonfatal self-harm too has increased and spread to younger adolescents. Young people are becoming more likely to see self-harm as a way of coping with stress.’

Professor Appleby, also Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester, added: ‘Epidemiological evidence links suicide and self-harm to deprivation. Sociological perspectives point to detachment from the values of wider society.’

The report’s authors found that suicide was more common in older groups – 84 of the deaths examined were among people aged 15 to 17, and 24 of the young people who died by suicide were aged 14 and under. Death by suicide was found to be more common in boys. In the 86 deaths where ethnicity was known 68 of the children were white and 18 were from black, Asian, mixed or other ethnicities.

While the report examined the profiles of the children and young people who died by suicide or whose deaths were reviewed during this period, its authors emphasised that research was needed to both examine factors such as drug use in the context of wider populations and to look at the interaction and accumulation of risk factors (such as parental separation, bereavement, and diagnosed mental health conditions) to better understand suicide in this age group.

The NCMD made nine recommendations, for those who work in services with children and young people, to improve the safety and effectiveness of those services. These included training in suicide prevention for frontline staff, recognising the impact of domestic abuse and other types of conflict in the home, and encouraging schools to have anti-bullying policies which include information on assessing the risk of suicide in children and young people.

While the period of the report did not cover the Covid-19 pandemic, the NCMD has been monitoring the suicides of children and young people across this time using real-time evidence. The authors pointed out that they had found no evidence that deaths by suicide had increased during the pandemic, and while there had been concerns that rates had increased during England’s first lockdown this was not statistically significant and baseline numbers were low.  

To read the NCMD report, which includes helplines and information for support, see tinyurl.com/rdu768w8

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