Suicide in young people needs to be tackled as a matter of public health – Mairi Gordon

Young people face many new pressures and challenges at work and school
Young people face many new pressures and challenges at work and school
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Today marks World ­Suicide Prevention Day. It’s a day for us to remember that, across the world, suicide ranks among the top 20 causes of death for all age groups. It’s a day to remember the 15 people in Scotland who lost their lives to suicide every week in 2018. It’s a day to remember the partners, parents, siblings, friends, schoolmates and co-workers who will be forever by touched by every one of those deaths.

But it’s also a day to remember that suicide is not inevitable. By working together, we can save lives. Recent ­figures on deaths by suicide in ­Scotland and across much of the UK underline why we must continue to make prevention a priority.

Mairi Gordon, Policy and Communications Officer, Samaritans

Mairi Gordon, Policy and Communications Officer, Samaritans

In Scotland, deaths by suicide rose to 784 in 2018 from 680 the ­previous year, an increase of 15 per cent. ­Suicide rates continue to be highest among men and women aged 35-54 but figures show a concerning rise in deaths by suicide among young ­people. Last year, the rate among young people under 25 in Scotland rose by 50 per cent, reaching its highest level in more than decade. Recent ONS figures show the rate of deaths among under-25s has risen across the UK with an increase of 23.7 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

These figures cast a shadow over what should be an exciting moment for young people across the country. September is a month of anticipation and change. Those still at school are now a few weeks into a new year, adjusting to new classes and new freedoms. For others, trading school for university, college, a first job or apprenticeship, these changes are even more marked. If your school days are an increasingly distant memory, you might look in envy at today’s young people, who appear to have everything ahead of them.

But this can also be a time of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness for a lot of young people. The rise in deaths by suicide among under-25s is one among several concerning indicators, suggesting that many young people in Scotland are facing new pressures and challenges. We see this reflected in rising rates of depression and anxiety. At Samaritans, we are particularly concerned about ­rising rates of self-harm among young people, which can be an indicator of increased risk of suicide.

As with all age groups, suicide among young people is complex. It is rarely possible to identify a single reason that leads someone to a point of crisis. The factors that shape young people’s well-being are varied. Some, like the pressures of school and exams will be familiar to many of us. Some, like concerns around job ­security and money worries, are heightened by economic uncertainty. There are other concerns which are new to this generation and therefore it is hard to understand their full impact yet, like the role of social media and digital technology.

To support youth mental health and reduce suicide, we need research, investment and services to take account of young people’s whole experience. We can’t expect a single service – from education to health – to hold all the answers. Instead we need a public health approach that brings together different groups and services to realise that shared goal. We need local and national government, health and care services, schools, ­colleges and universities, internet companies, youth groups and ­communities to all play a role.

Most of all, we need to put young people at the heart of this work and recognise that they can be the most powerful advocates for mental health. There are encouraging examples of innovation here in ­Scotland and across the UK. Schools and youth groups are developing peer-education programmes, training and ­supporting young people to speak to their peers about mental health and well-being.

Universities are introducing opt-in schemes to alert a trusted family member or friend when a ­student is struggling. At Samaritans, we’re developing a new web chat service and other online resources to ensure our support for people in crisis and distress continues to be accessible and relevant to a new ­generation. But we know there’s still a long way to go. These recent figures are a reminder that we must redouble our commitment to young people. We need to ensure that every young ­person feels able to ask for help and that when they do they get the right support at the right time. We need to support young people to develop the skills and resilience to look after their own well-being and to look out for those around them. If we get these lessons right today, the benefits will last a ­lifetime.

Mairi Gordon, policy and communications officer, Samaritans.