When I was nine years old, my dad, Ralph, ended his own life. That loss has had a profound impact, not only on my own life, but also on the lives of those around me.
Still at junior school when my mum shared the news that was to shape the rest of our lives, I felt I was the only person this had ever happened to. None of my friends’ dads had killed themselves. They were still around to watch their children grow up.
I didn’t know what the word suicide meant. I didn’t even realise that was a thing people did. I shared my own experience of parental suicide on Radio 4’s Four Thought last year, including growing up behind the suffocating wall of silence surrounding my dad’s death and living with the far-reaching impact on my own mental health and relationships.
Almost 40 years on, I now know a lot more about suicide. As founder and CEO of Luna Foundation, I’m committed to highlighting the impact of suicide on children and young people, particularly those who lose a parent or primary caregiver at an early age.
Last May, research published in The Lancet Psychiatry revealed that children bereaved by parental suicide while aged from two to five face the most increased risk of suicide themselves. These findings came as a shock to many; it’s all too common to hear people say younger children are ‘too young to understand what happened’ or ‘they’ll just bounce back’. But the study, based on more than four million individuals, blew those assumptions out of the water. Any increase in suicide risk in young people requires our urgent attention, and it demonstrated why those bereaved by suicide in the early years must be a priority.
Last week, the government published its long-awaited Suicide Prevention Strategy for England and although children and young people are identified as a priority with measures to reduce suicides in this group, there is no provision for supporting our youngest children when a parent or carer dies by suicide in the early years.
Sadly, when a person who has children ends their own life it remains a persistent taboo. The lack of support and long-term impact of my dad’s suicide motivated me to carry out international research as a Churchill Fellow on how we can improve support and outcomes for children impacted by parental suicide. I wanted to make sure that no child felt as isolated and abandoned as I did back in 1985.
I was shocked to learn that as children who lose a parent to suicide, we’re twice as likely to be hospitalised due to depression and three times more likely to end our own lives.
We know that suicide is the biggest killer of men and women under 35, and the leading cause of death for women from six weeks to 12 months after giving birth, but we don’t know how many children lose a parent by suicide in the UK as nobody counts us.
Luna is urging the government to collect and publish this data through our #TimeToCount campaign, as we urgently need to understand how and when to best support those affected. I welcome the new government push to expand mental health support teams in schools and colleges, but there’s also a need for appropriate support in early years settings. To break the chain of poor mental health and suicide risk for those who lose a parent to suicide, it’s vital that these teams receive suicide bereavement training and that all education settings have a suicide bereavement plan in place.
Everyone needs to be prepared to support children after suicide loss, to prevent them becoming our suicide statistics of the future. At Luna we’ve produced a suicide bereavement policy template for education settings and we deliver evidence-informed suicide bereavement training for people including teachers, social workers and mental health staff who work with children and young people so that they can provide timely and effective support after suicide.
We have recently developed training specifically for early years practitioners to ensure they are also prepared for when our youngest and most vulnerable children are affected. For too long this group has been overlooked. We need to join the dots between those who experience suicide, particularly the loss of a parent or primary caregiver, during childhood, and those who experience mental ill-health and later go on to end their own lives.
The new five-year strategy recognises that the death of a parent by suicide can be ‘devastating and often have lasting effects, particularly on children from a very early stage in their development’ but there is no provision for support to mitigate long-term mental health risks.
It’s disappointing that the government has missed a valuable opportunity to improve support for children who lose a parent to suicide in the early years. Every suicide is a tragedy but failing to support the youngest and most vulnerable children left behind is inexcusable.
They need, and they deserve, better. For children who lose a parent to suicide it’s #TimeToCount.
This article was originally published as a Mumsnet guest blog on 22nd September 2023.
About the author:
Anna Wardley is an endurance swimmer, motivational speaker, and Founder and CEO of Luna Foundation, a social enterprise dedicated to transforming the support for children after suicide. Anna’s dad, Ralph, took his own life when she was nine and that loss had a profound impact on both her own life and the lives of those around her. Anna founded Luna in March 2022 to implement key recommendations from her Churchill Fellowship report entitled Time to Count, initially focusing on the provision of evidence-based suicide bereavement training for people working with children and young people.
Follow Anna at @annawardley