Deaths of children with special needs in Kent raise concerns over school closures

Five children with special educational needs have killed themselves in the space of three months in Kent, a council chief has revealed in a warning over the impact of school closures on pupils.

Sarah Hammond, the director of integrated children’s services in Kent and Medway, said two or three child suicides would ordinarily be expected over 12 months.

All five of the Kent and Medway children had special needs, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which may have made it particularly difficult for them to cope without the routine of school, she said.

Research published on Monday also pointed to a possible increase in child suicides across England during the coronavirus lockdown. According to the National Child Mortality Database (NCMD), there were 25 likely child suicides in the first 56 days of lockdown.

“The causes are unclear,” the study noted, “but restrictions to education and other activities, disruption to care and support services, tensions at home and isolation appeared to be important factors.”

Factors related to Covid were thought likely to have contributed to 12 (48%) of the post-lockdown deaths. By comparison, in the 82 days before lockdown, there were 26 likely child suicides. The study also indicated a higher than expected proportion of under-15s, although this difference did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance.

“There is a concerning signal that child suicide deaths may have increased during the first 56 days of lockdown,” the study concludes, “but risk remains low and numbers are too small to reach definitive conclusions.”

The Kent and Medway suicides involved three boys and two girls aged 13-17. Most had previously had some kind of contact with mental health support services. A further two teenage boys made serious suicide attempts resulting in life-changing injuries. Kent has also recorded two suicides among care leavers, aged 20 and 21, and three suicides of vulnerable mothers. Experts warn, however, that with small numbers, any increases may be due to chance.

The NCMD report also addressed suicide risk in people with autism. “We found a quarter of individuals both pre- and post-lockdown had ASD or ADHD. Although the finding of increased risk is unconfirmed statistically, clinicians and services should be aware of the possible increase and the need for vigilance and support.”

Schools in England were closed to all pupils from Monday 23 March, apart from children of key workers and vulnerable children, which initially included those with education, health and care plans or a social worker, but was later broadened.

As vulnerable pupils, the Kent children would have been entitled to a school place during lockdown but because of family fears about the risks of Covid-19 they did not attend, in common with thousands of others across England.

Hammond said the deaths highlighted the protective role schools play in children’s lives and she expressed concern about the abruptness of closures. “I do believe that people thought that the vulnerable children would continue to go to school. We worked really, really hard to get parents to send their children in, but we never got above 10% [of vulnerable children entitled to a school place],” she said.

“All through this pandemic, this whole group of children could and should have been at school. But it was the severity of message about the danger of the virus that very understandably frightened parents.”

Hammond and other experts are turning their attention to the return to school in September. “We are absolutely desperate for children and young people not to become the forgotten victims of this terrible virus,” she said.

Ellen Townsend, a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham and an expert in self-harm and suicide prevention, warned there could be “a tsunami of mental health issues” on the horizon. “I’m worried that those who are already vulnerable will be struggling even more. I’m worried there are certain groups of young people who have been fine but are now struggling. The good news is that talking therapies really help with these things.”

As children and young people return to school, she said the emphasis should be on play and socialisation rather than just academic learning. But first she said “young people do really need a summer of fun. They need to be out there having fun and interacting with their peers.”

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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