Tuesday, 7 October 2014
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on assuming her new portfolio. It is great to see her in this role. This is the first time I have addressed her since she took over at the Department of Education and Skills and I wish her the very best of luck.
The Minister will be aware that the level of youth suicide in Ireland is the fifth highest in the European Union, with the figure for 15 to 24 year olds standing at 15.7 per 100,000. Based on this figure, it is imperative that we devise a course on suicide awareness and prevention aimed at post-primary students. ASIST, Applied Suiscide Intervention Skills Training, offers a two day course aimed at adults to increase suicide awareness and teach the signs to look out for in persons who may be vulnerable. This is very beneficial, but a short course on suicide awareness and prevention should also be devised specifically for post-primary school students.
A combination of the ASIST and safeTALK courses is already being used in places such as Canada and iproving to be very successful. Providing students with an understanding of suicide means that those experiencing suicidal thoughts will know where to seek help. It will also empower their friends and class mates in recognising students who are in difficulty and need help. Suicide prevention courses should include coping skills in response to stress, substance abuse and aggressive behaviours. The focus should be on promoting positive mental health in post-primary school settings. Prevention programmes in schools will allow us to reach greater numbers of students and help those dealing with suicidal thoughts or who could potentially be affected. Primary prevention at a young age can lead to lower rates of suicide. The way forward is to educate children at a young age.
There is no quick fix solution to the problem of youth suicide, but the introduction of a sensitive course at post-primary level - perhaps in transition year - could make a difference. I, therefore, ask the Minister to consider introducing such a course.
I thank the Senator for her good wishes. I also thank her for raising this very important issue.
I am very aware of the serious problem of youth suicide and the important role schools can play in prevention. My Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive, produced guidelines for post-primary schools in 2013 entitled, Well-Being in Post-Primary Schools: Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention. The guidelines are informed by consultations with key education and health partners and the findings of current research. They provide practical guidance for post-primary schools on how they can promote mental health and well-being in an integrated school-wide way and also evidence-based advice on how to support young people who may be at risk of suicidal behaviour. They build on the significant work already taking place in schools, including through the Social, Personal and Health Education, SPHE, curriculum, the whole-school guidance plan, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, continuum of support model and the HSE's health promoting schools process. Information is also provided on how to access support from the SPHE support service and other external agencies and support services.
The new framework for the junior cycle also places a clear emphasis on overall student health and well-being. It is underpinned by eight principles, one of which is well-being. It also has eight key skills which are to be embedded in every new junior cycle subject and short course as they are developed. They include the key skills of "managing myself" and "staying well". In addition, the 24 statements of learning students should experience during their junior cycle programme involve students communicating effectively, understanding the process of moral decision making and taking action to safeguard and promote their own well-being and that of others.
One of the innovative features of the junior cycle framework is the introduction of short courses that schools can choose to implement. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has developed a new short course in SPHE which may be delivered for certification purposes and will involve an increase in the time allocation for SPHE in the junior cycle up to 100 hours over three years. The new short course is available to post-primary schools to implement, should they wish to do so, as part of their junior cycle programme. It includes strands such as "minding myself and others" and "my mental health" and deals with issues such as mental health and mental ill-health, dealing with tough times, loss and bereavement. Students will have opportunities to revisit different themes which focus on developing self-awareness and respect for others and the skills of self-management, communication, coping, decision making and relating to others.
It is open to any NGO, interested stakeholders, or even a local school, to develop a short course in order to fulfil the commitments of the junior cycle framework. It is possible, therefore, for a group interested in promoting student well-being to develop a short course in this area. Schools would then be able to implement it should they wish to do so.
The Senator should note that there are opportunities for schools to develop short courses. We all want to see schools engaged in dealing with this hugely troubling issue.
I thank the Minister for her response. I am delighted to learn about the actions being taken by the Department to promote positive mental health among post-primary students. It is welcome that the Minister has an open mind about the possibility of developing a new course to tackle the scourge of youth suicide. I might liaise with her Department in this regard.