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Young Women: Self-Harm

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 16 November 2017


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to reduce the number of young women who are self-harming.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Storey, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, in recent years there has been an increase in self-harming among young women. This is a worrying trend that the Government are committed to addressing. That is why we updated the cross-government suicide prevention strategy and expanded its key areas for action to include self-harm. We are also committed to implementing a community-based care pathway for self-harm by 2019 and to making sure that every acute hospital has mental health liaison services in place by 2020-21.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for acknowledging the shocking 68% increase in the number of young girls being admitted to hospital for self-harm over the last decade. Does he agree that school counsellors can be a very valuable resource in helping to tackle this terrible epidemic of emotional distress among young people, because they are non-stigmatising and easily accessible? However, I visited an area yesterday where I was told that all the school counsellors have had to be sacked because the schools cannot afford to pay them. Will the Minister work with the Department for Education to ensure that by the end of this Parliament every secondary state school in this country has a school counsellor, so that we can tackle the welfare requirements of young people as well as their academic requirements?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to highlight the importance of schools in dealing with this. It is not just a health issue. Indeed it is not just about education either, but involves a cross-government approach. I would be very keen for her to write to me with the specific details of what she is describing—it does not sound like a positive development. Much more positively, more than 1,000 secondary schools have now had mental health first aid training for at least one teacher in the school, and the ambition is to extend that to all secondary schools. She will also know that there will very shortly be a children and young people mental health Green Paper, which I think will have quite ambitious actions for both schools and the health service to support young people with mental health problems.

My Lords, building on the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, does the noble Lord agree with me that bullying in schools can start very early, well before secondary school, and can give rise to very severe mental health issues among those who are bullied? Does he also agree with me that schools struggle to deal with this issue, partly because they are unclear about how to balance their duties of care to victims and to perpetrators, who often have issues of their own? Can he say in what way he is working with his colleagues in the Department for Education to make sure that primary schools have access to good resources to meet this, including programmes such as Place2Be?

The noble Baroness picks up on a particular interest of mine. She may know that I was involved in setting up three primary schools. It is important to start these lessons early. In the end it comes down to behaviour policies and what is expected from children. Schools with fair and robust behaviour policies do not tend to see bullying. Those which are more lax do. First, it is about making sure that teachers have training and resources and the support they need from the leadership, governors and parents to crack down on it. Bullying now has moved into different domains, particularly online. I think it is very encouraging today—the noble Baroness may have seen it—that His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge is launching some actions on cyberbullying. Dealing with bullying is a big part of that and I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of starting early.

My Lords, the Government’s own research, most notably that commissioned by the DWP from Professor Gordon Harold, conclusively showed a causal link between young people internalising problems, such as self-harm, and conflict and breakdown in their parents’ relationships. Will this evidence be acted on in the forthcoming Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health?

I know this area is of great interest to my noble friend and he has done very good research on it. He is quite right to highlight the impact that, unfortunately, parental conflict and breakdown has on children. The Department for Work and Pensions, in a cross-government approach, is doing particular work on supporting parents. I also know that the best schools and community health services work to provide that kind of parenting support. There are a number of parenting programmes out there. I assure my noble friend that that evidence takes a proper place in the mental health strategy that we will be publishing for children and young people.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People—a mental health service for adolescents which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Does the Minister agree that adolescence is a hugely challenging part of human development and that we put far too much pressure, far too often, on adolescents and interfere with their successful development, with the outcomes described in this Question? Will he look at Lucy Crehan’s work Cleverlands, an international comparison of the best performing schools, and her criticisms of the British and American systems? She finds that we put far too much pressure on head teachers through Ofsted inspections. It is a punitive, rather than a supportive, act and we should review it to see whether we could be more supportive of head teachers and get a better, supportive atmosphere for children in our schools.

I congratulate the centre the noble Earl works for on its anniversary. He is absolutely right about the pressures of adolescence. Unfortunately, the causes of self-harm are not well understood. One of the hypotheses is that the motivation appears to be stress relief, which is an incredibly disturbing idea. I am aware of Lucy Crehan’s work from my previous work in schools. I do not think you can link school accountability with the kind of pressures we are describing today and how they manifest in self-harm. We want schools to be successful. It is vital that children are well educated. It is also true that that can be done in a number of ways. The best schools, including ones that I have been involved with in the past, practise something called positive education which emphasises not only the academic aspect but also character and well-being. I think that is the approach that we need to follow.

My Lords, if I may bring the Minister back to his area of responsibility, is he aware of recent research indicating that at primary level, references by doctors to mental health services are least in the deprived areas in the country and those are the areas where the self-harming is rising most of all? Can he tell the House what steps he is taking to halt that and move it in the other direction?

I would be interested to see that evidence. It is not something that I have seen. All I can say is that mental health funding has increased by more than 8% in the last couple of years so there is more money going into it but clearly it is vital that it is properly spread.