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Why Are Our Most Vulnerable Children Suffering Asks a Mother?
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A mother who has children affected by Asberger’s syndrome has talked to Down News and has addressed the important issue of suicide in our young people affected by this growing global health problem. This is a complex issue in many ways and it raises many questions about the health and welfare of out most vulnerable young people and indeed the welfare of the whole family.

The Northern Ireland government spent £170 million of setting up local schools to participate in the Eluminate programme, which allows a teacher to link with a pupil at home via a classroom computer and deliver a lesson or piece of work. However, to date the system is sitting on the shelf despite the investment in training and capital provision of equipment in schools across Northern Ireland. Children may also be educated at home if they are unwell through various illnesses such as cancer, ME, ADHD or other serious issues.

The mother has preferred to remain anonymous to protect her children’s rights and has explained in detail the dilemma many parents are facing in looking after their children with this difficult health issue and the background threat of suicide. 

The Northern Ireland government has spent £170 million on the Eluminate programme in local schools but it has yet to be fully implemented.

The Northern Ireland government has spent £170 million on the Eluminate programme in local schools but it has yet to be fully implemented.

She has addressed a fundamental question: Why offering the support of Elluminate provision, and making parents aware of their legal choice to home school without having to adhere to the school curriculum, may well prevent suicide. In explaining her position, she has drawn of studies completed in America and England.

Much of the level of stress on parents seems to come from schools and the education departments themselves and a culture of ‘threats’ has prevailed making the situation even more stressful for parents struggling with the already difficult situation.

She said: “At the time of writing I am aware not only of how deeply distressed my young teens were by the school environment and how my only regret about taking them out was that I did not do it sooner, but also I am conscious of three recent suicides of young teens locally which appear to have been linked to pressures due to school bullying and academic pressures.

“I know also from listening to other parents who have taken children out of school that they did so also to save their children as they were suffering so much. Their child’s self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts feature regularly among parents telling their stories of why they removed their children from school.   The Northern Ireland educational system, as it exists at the moment, is failing children and persecuting parents for having taken such a step it seems we are dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t.

“Figures from New Life counselling service show that 17% of young people have issues of bullying by a teacher and that was just from the children who spoke to a councillor – there were many who did not.

“Here are some facts about suicide, stress and young people, which parents often know through experience but which we need the NI Government to take into account so parents who have removed their children from school are supported, not threatened and harassed.

The entire education system needs to be more empathetic, but the critical need is to support parents of children in crisis who have had to act by removing their children for their own health and safety.  Through the offer of Elluminate provision so children are not further disadvantaged, children should not be put at increased risks and vulnerability due to not getting their education if the school environment was not a good place for them.”

The mother continued to describe adolescence as a “stressful developmental period filled with major changes – body changes, changes in thoughts, a brain which is still developing, and changes in feelings. Strong feelings of stress, confusion, fear, and uncertainty, as well as pressure to succeed, and the ability to think about things in new ways influence a teenager’s problem solving and decision making abilities.

“School pressure has been shown to be the number one cause of stress in children. School-age children feel stressed about academic and extracurricular demands, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Students feel pressure to complete daily homework, participate in class, and finish projects and study for exams. In addition to the quest for good grades, the children may also participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, student council, cheerleading and clubs. The added pastimes contribute to teenage anxiety because the activities may be competitive and require scheduling that cuts into study time and relaxing downtime.

“The American Academy of Paediatrics considers peer pressure a major teenage stress factor. Although your child may have a solid group of friends, the children may pressure her to hang out in lieu of studying, break ties with former friends that the core group doesn’t consider ‘cool; or experiment with drugs, alcohol or sexual activity that goes against her morals or family rules. Peer pressure or bullying on campus and after school through phone calls, text messages and email may distract your child from studying, leading her to feel additional guilt and anxiety”.

*  Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year in US, according to the CDC (US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention). For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 per cent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 per cent have attempted it.

*  Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University

*  A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying

*  10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above

*  According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 per cent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

“Whilst many parents in NI are pressured to keep their children in school for socialisation statistics like this, of which there are many, need to remind us that while hopefully the majority of children benefit from the social aspect of school, there is a negative side of bullying including bullying by teachers, academic pressure, peer pressure re alcohol, underage sex, drugs, clothes, body image, smoking, and many more issues often silently endured by young people. Studies show eight out of ten young people who self-harm do not tell anyone so we must also acknowledge that suffering in children often goes unreported – but parents notice and become concerned about their child. Parents can and must act and we should be grateful and respectful of that.”

“Tom Lyons said this in the Herald Tribune Magazine: ‘It’s dismaying that any young and healthy high school student living an ordinary life could feel so overcome with despair that suicide is even contemplated.’

“And so, whenever a teenage suicide happens, we try to find out what went wrong. Was the victim coping with extreme bullying, unwanted pregnancy, sexual abuse, parental divorce, a traumatic break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or drug abuse? Was there anything out of the ordinary that might have made a teenager feel so despondent and unable to cope?

“But teen suicide isn’t so rare. It’s the third leading cause of death for teenagers, and the rate has tripled since 1960. And, often, the victim’s problems seem puzzlingly ordinary.

“So, what if the key underlying cause is something ordinary, something we think is good for young people, something we require because we think it will help them enjoy bright futures?

That is, what if the underlying cause of fatal despair for high school kids is high school itself?

That’s pretty much the conclusion of the two researchers who published “Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar.” Revealing suicide statistics were found by the authors, Benjamin Hansen of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon, and Matthew Lang of the Department of Economics at the Williams College of Business, Xavier University.

Their findings fly in the face of the old saying that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. If so, teens should get into far more trouble and despair during the summer, when they have plenty of time for sex, drugs, crime, violent video games, bullying and any other problematic and unsupervised activity.

But that’s exactly when high school students don’t commit suicide, Lang and Hansen found. By a large margin, no-school months are when their suicide numbers bottom out.

High-schoolers also get arrested less in the summer.

And no, it’s not because winter has gloomy weather and less sunlight, they say. That’s a suicide factor for the general population. But after adjusting for that, high school suicides remained way too high all through the school year.

The rate dropped off during holiday breaks. And the unusual numbers don’t apply to 19-21 year olds.

The researchers don’t call for doing away with high school. But they theorize that today’s gargantuan schools are just too full of teens. Many feel no bonds of friendship or kinship, yet are forced into peer interactions that can be relentlessly stressful.

Sure, adults seem to be in charge. But many interactions take place out of adult sight and sound, and many involve status rivalry, jealousy, peer pressure, bullying and varying degrees of rejection and ostracism.

Add academic demands and homework and a grouchy teacher or two, and those kids live in an unusually stressful, demanding and crowded world unlike anything most adults deal with.

We think we have been there and done that. But maybe we grossly underestimate the hopeless feelings many teenagers feel in the high school world we created and herded them into.

It’s easy to think home-schooling parents are overly protective and rob their kids of the chance to develop social skills that come with peer interactions. But I wonder how many peers — especially unfriendly ones — a teenager must be forced to interact with daily to get this alleged improvement?

“Previous research has found evidence of academic benefits to longer school years, the researcher’s wrote. But their own study, they said, suggests a serious downside, because high school students “face increased stress and decreased mental health when school is in session.”

The Report discussed by Tom Lyons documented a large decrease in youth suicide in during summer. ► Adults from a slightly older age ranges exhibit no summer decrease in suicide. ► The summer decline in youth suicide is not explained by weather, unemployment, or SAD. ► The increase rate of youth suicide during non-summer months aligns with school calendar. ► That increase may be indicative of broader stress experienced by youth in school.

So what about the children when parents took action and removed their children from school? In the study titled ‘The Prevalence of Home Education in England’: A Feasibility Study by Vicky Hopwood, Louise O’Neill, Gabriela Castro and Beth Hodgson of York Consulting Ltd they found that the effects of home education reported by parents interviewed included:

Personal benefits such as:

− high levels of confidence and self-esteem;

− happier children;

− high standards of behaviour;

− ability to mix with children and adults;

Family benefits such as:

− a close relationship between parent and child;

Benefits for lifelong learning, for example:

− a self-directed approach to learning;

− motivation to learn;

– developments in line with age-related peers:

− some parents reported their children to be successfully following the curriculum at the level of, or in advance of, their age-related peers.

Some parents who had withdrawn their children from school to home educate because of concerns over their welfare, reported mental health benefits as well as ‘educational’ progress such as a reduction in self-harm and improved self-confidence.

In additions to the findings above we know too that psychologists and psychiatrists universally agree that the fundamental basic in helping anyone in difficulty is a close relationship. With many home educators reporting a closer relationship with their children, better sleep and nutrition it is easy to see the healing and wellbeing potential in this option.

Historically children in NI often fall between the stools of different government departments. It seems in this case these children are falling between health and education.  Suicide prevention is everybody’s business; parents especially thankfully instinctively act for their child, seeing the suffering the child often hides behind a brave face in school.

Following on from Protect Life, is The Northern Ireland Suicide Prevention Strategy Action Plan 2012 – March 2014. It has much to say about raising awareness but it also requires statutory and public bodies to carry out health impact assessments on their policies, in terms of possible adverse effect on the mental health and wellbeing of local communities. This is especially relevant to current ELB’s practice when a parent acts to protect their child’s wellbeing by removing them from school –a source of suicide causation. Parents in such situations frequently report adverse suffering, bullying, threats, undermining, and disrespectful behaviour by those involved, they report not being listened to about their child’s needs, and added anguish from government departments resulting in undue pressure when they need to prioritise care and calm for their child’s wellbeing.

It seems that parents proactively protecting the welfare of their child not coping with school are being pressured, harassed and often threated if not actually prosecuted by the current system. The multi-disciplinary teams involved and the education welfare officers often fail to recognise and respect the parent’s rights to and their action of protecting the child’s welfare. The effective and well publicised provision of Elluminate has the potential to offer a compassionate solution to everyone’s welfare concerns, parents and education offices and as such is urgently needed by many in crisis situations today.

The Suicide Prevention Strategy Action Plan recommends that government “Promotes a culture of seeking help” – many children who are now out of school sought help, their parents thankfully listened and acted. We do not know how many children who have died by suicide due to stress from in or as a result of school, had parents who felt or were not aware they had a choice to de-register their child or felt they could not manage to home educate and so continued to send their child until their child could no longer cope and the child acted to end their pain. For those parents who acted for their children’s well-being and removed their children from school, the government now needs to respect that act and support children and parents via the choice of Elluminate and end the battle against parents often and mercifully acting to protect their child’s wellbeing.