Thursday, 1 May 2014




Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are in crisis with teachers now in the front line of trying to support young people with mental health problems erupting in classrooms causing chaos. Stress levels among teachers are rising dramatically as a result. But as well as staff shortages, cutbacks in budgets and increased demand stretching CAMHS services and putting pressure on teachers, there is another consequence that will not garner many headlines- the rising number of suicides and self harm among young people.


The numbers of those young people found to have committed suicide each year are a stark reminder of the painful human cost of a failure by governments to invest in children's well-being and prevent the onset of mental illness. The loss of a young life is always shocking and distressing but in the case of suicide there is an added sense of despair and helplessness evoked. Suicide is now the second most common cause of death in young men and women in the UK yet stigma and shame continue to blight those trying to cope and mental health is never politically popular.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides an opportunity to examine in closer detail what has been happening over the past 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. The official press release highlighted the recent jump in the annual number of suicides. There were 6,045 suicides in people aged 15 and over in the UK in 2011, compared with 5608 in 2010 – a rise of 437 people. The ONS figures showed that the UK suicide rate “increased significantly” from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 population to 11.8 deaths per 100,000 population. These statistics relate to the whole population, so it is worth noting that the corresponding figures for young people aged between 15 and 25 years were: 14.1 and 14.8 deaths per 100,000 population. Young people are thus more at risk of suicide than older people.

However closer analysis of the 30 year data reveals some worrying trends in the context of the current Economic crisis. For children aged 15-19 years there were on average more than 4 suicides every week, while for young people aged 19-25 there were 14 per week. Together on average nearly 3 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 committed suicide every day of the week. Put together the total number of suicides between 1981 and 2011 of young people between 15 and 25 years of age who committed suicide was 21,006. Or an average of over 700 per year.

The figures show that in the peak years of unemployment in 1983/84; 1992/93 and 2009/10 there were higher than average numbers of suicides in young people. As youth unemployment nears 1 million there is no doubt that the numbers for 2014/15 will show record numbers of suicides. Many research studies have shown a correlation between poverty/unemployment and youth suicides.

The recording of suicides by coroners is variable around the country and is understood to be an under-representation of the actual number of suicides in young people officially recorded due to the lack of evidence in many unusual deaths of a corroborating note, or other indication of intent. Coroners are reluctant therefore to record an official suicide verdict where there is any doubt and also to protect the feelings of grieving parents and family.

The previous Labour government launched the National Suicide Prevention Strategy  in 2002 with a target of reducing suicides by at least 20 per cent by the year 2010. This period combined with an unprecedented increased in NHS funding and specific hefty increases in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) budgets. That target was achieved in terms of suicides in young people, and it happened to co-incide with a period of strong Economic growth. Some MP's are so concerned about CAMHS and that the House of Commons Health Committee is starting a Parliamentary Enquiry. Teachers, Parents, CAMHS staff and young people will draw little comfort from this. The last National Report in 2008 from the NHS demanded increased training for all staff working with young people, more specialist resources and extra investment in early intervention services to prevent problems arising in the first place. 2008 was the year Lehmans Bank collapsed triggering the latest Capitalist crisis and ushering in austerity, a terrible cost in young people's lives and devastating family's lives in ways that are incalculable.

Steven Walker (Author of The Social Workers Guide to Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Jessica Kingsley).