Education key to keeping our young people safe

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 19th December, 2012 5:00pm

Education key to keeping our young people safe

Calls have increased in the past week for the government and mental health services to act swiftly to deal with the shocking toll of youth suicides in the wake of the deaths of two young Co Donegal sisters within weeks of each other.

The calls have come as it has emerged that psychiatric services are facing a surge in demand for specialist care for young people, up to one in 10 of whom suffer from some form of mental health issues, according to some figures.

The untimely death of Shannon Gallagher at the age of 15 just a few weeks after her younger sister, Erin, was laid to rest has shocked the country. It is the fourth case of a young schoolgirl taking her own life in the past couple of months. For the family and the local community in Donegal, it is a tragedy beyond words and comprehension.

Erin and Shannon's distraught mother, Lorraine, in the midst of her overwhelming grief, has appealed to young people to come forward and talk about their hurt if they are feeling low. "I want them to know that suicide is not the answer to whatever hurt and pain they are going through. There is another way and there are people there to listen," she told mourners last week just weeks after her other daughter had been laid to rest. Local priest Fr John Joe Duffy pulled no punches at the funeral Mass when he said that society had failed both girls, and added that the first tragedy that befell the Gallagher family should have been the catalyst for change for agencies and support groups, but it had not been. Two sisters within two months is a most damning indictment for any society, evidenced by the second white coffin that is before this altar within two short months, the priest said.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, who professed himself deeply shocked and saddened by the sisters' deaths, has said guidelines on suicide prevention are to be issued next month to all secondary schools across the country as part of a campaign to improve mental health support for students. The guidance is designed to support principals, guidance counsellors, student support teams and teachers. Suicide awareness organisations have been calling for action on increased education in schools for some time, saying that early identification of, and responses to, emerging suicide clusters is critical in reducing the incidence of suicide within communities.

In a parallel development, the government is allocating €500,000 for anti-bullying measures in schools. Bullying, and particularly cyber-bullying, have been identified as being one of the root causes of teenagers and pre-teens self-harming. It is about time someone in government took the issue of bullying seriously as it is clear from some of the recent series of tragic cases that online bullying was a factor in some, and there needs to be greater support for children and teenagers in dealing with these issues.

The emotional and psychological damage that bullying can inflict on sometimes vulnerable young people must be stemmed as research has shown that it can seriously impact and impede the development of young people in terms of their self-esteem and mental health. It is clear that everyone needs to do more, and our educators in particular need to be given the resources and the tools necessary to identify at-risk students and deal appropriately with them. Young teens don't have the life skills to cope with some of the material they see in the virtual world of online, in particular, and need to be taught how to protect themselves from dangerous and threatening material.

Ever greater numbers of young people are using social networking sites with almost 80 per cent of those in their mid-teens now using social networking sites like Facebook regularly. Yet, parents are often unable to keep pace with understanding the technological changes and advances taking place in the lives of their children.

Suicide is a very complex area truly only understood by trained health professionals but it is an issue that cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. It is a malevolent crisis stalking the land and taking our children, and as a society we must press for the best possible supports to be put in place to prevent more senseless deaths of young people who have their whole lives to lead ahead of them but who may be struggling because of peer pressure, bullying, exam pressure or the myriad other issues that teenagers face today, and which often can be amplified in their own minds.

A good starting point would be a realisation that we need to equip our young people with the skills necessary to cope with emotional adversity as part of the primary and secondary school curriculum.

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