Bishop of Lichfield calls for greater support of vulnerable young people in preventing suicide

The Bishop of Lichfield spoke during Lord Eames’ debate on reducing the levels of suicide among young people in the United Kingdom. He focused his remarks on the relationship between low levels of self-worth amongst young people as a factor that contributes to suicidal thoughts. He also raised particular concerns about the risks of bullying or coercion that young people with disabilities face, specifically as debates about assisted suicide become more widespread, and the need to support children who are refugees or asylum seekers and particularly vulnerable due to a lack of adequate mental health care.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for initiating this debate.

The Association for Young People’s Health recently published its key data on adolescence. At present, the statistics show that the levels of self-harm are relatively stable, although for such a sensitive topic there is likely to be low reporting. It is clear that girls are at least three times more likely to self-harm than boys; on the other hand, suicide is much more prevalent among young males, particularly those aged between 20 and 24. This coincides with the evidence from ChildLine. Numbers have fallen fractionally in more recent years but the report questions whether this will continue.

How this correlates with child well-being needs careful consideration. We all remember the United Nations report about the unhappiness of children in this country. ChildLine reports that the number of children contacting it about suicidal feelings has risen for the third year running, including a rise of 33% in the last year. Overall, child well-being in the UK, according to the United Nations, has improved from 21st out of 21 to 16th out of 29 countries. Economic reasons have been stated and there is much correlation with the commentary from the Association for Young People’s Health.

Clearly the motives towards suicide are varied but the underlining factor seems to be lack of self-worth. This is underlined by the evidence of high rates among minority groups. I shall say a word about that later. Whether or not bullying is a component, although often it is, the social isolation and lack of affirmation which these young people feel are key components. It is both encouraging and concerning that more young people are contacting ChildLine about this. Obviously it is good that they are communicating, but bad because they say that when they have rung up other places or have been online, they have not really felt the understanding or acceptance that they were hoping for. All this shows that we, as a society, may not be providing sufficient support in the early days when these young people’s foundations in relational networks are initially developed.

I have time to mention two particular topics in relation to this. First, bullying is often directed at those who are different and it is well known that disability frequently gives rise to despicable behaviour in others. This is starting to appear insidiously in the area of assisted suicide. Recently a young man in Northern Ireland telephoned a radio phone-in to complain that since the increasing cover of assisted suicide cases, he had noticed a change in people’s attitudes towards his own motor neurone disease, that he was being asked with increasing regularly if he had considered suicide. This shows, if nothing else, that the messages we give young people about their self-worth and their dignity as human beings is crucial.

Secondly, on asylum seekers and refugees, many children from these groups suffer high levels of mental health issues, which is unsurprising given that many of them have experienced hugely traumatic events. Add to this their poverty, homelessness, practical and emotional insecurity, let alone the hostility from the natives, it is not surprising that levels of well-being and self-worth are significantly diminished.

The conclusion of all this is that a society will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members, a matter over which all of us have deep concerns. Let us at least seek and do all we can to make sure that those who are struggling, or who are different, do not go on falling through these gaps.