Why it’s time to count children bereaved by parental suicide
Thousands of children and young people lose a parent or primary caregiver to suicide every year in the UK, but we don’t know exactly how many as nobody counts them. In the absence of official data, childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish estimates that more than 9,000 children are bereaved by parental suicide every year in the UK. These children must be counted and supported.
"My own lived experience and that of others who have also lost a parent to suicide is at the core of my work." - Anna Wardley, Fellow
International research shows that those who lose a parent to suicide in childhood are twice as likely to be hospitalised due to depression and three times as likely to take their own lives, compared to the wider population. To break this chain of poor mental health and increased suicide risk in people who experience parental suicide, we urgently need to quantify the scale of the need to improve the way we take care of the children left behind.
I am one of them myself. My own dad, Ralph, died by suicide when I was nine - and that loss has had a profound and lifelong impact on me and those around me. The lack of support available both then and now motivated me to apply for a Churchill Fellowship to improve the way we care for these children. My own lived experience and that of others who have also lost a parent to suicide is at the core of my work.
In my recently published Fellowship report entitled Time to count: supporting children after a parent dies by suicide, I share the findings of research I carried out over two years and across three continents. I have made 12 recommendations for taking better care of these vulnerable children to improve their mental health prospects and reduce their suicide risk. Here are five of my key recommendations:
- Collect robust data to quantify the number of children who lose a parent to suicide: My primary recommendation is, as a matter of urgency, to count the number of children who are impacted by the suicide of a parent or primary caregiver in the UK. Without this vital data, policymakers are blind to the scale of the issue and lack the insight needed to develop a coherent and funded plan to support these young people and mitigate the well-documented risks they face. This week I launched a petition to call on the UK Government to collect and collate this important data so that a long-term programme of support for these children can be planned and appropriately funded. If you are a British citizen or UK resident, you can add your name to the petition here.
- Provide specialist interventions distinct from general bereavement services: Secondly, we need to recognise that bereavement following a death by suicide is different to other forms of bereavement. Suicide often results in complicated grief, particularly for children and young people, due to the complex feelings of guilt, shame and abandonment that can arise in those left behind. We need to provide age-appropriate interventions specific to suicide bereavement that consider the potential impact of parental suicide on a child’s self-worth and mental health.
- Develop systematic referral and coordinated response after parental suicide: Thirdly, my international visits highlighted the need for systematic referral to specialist suicide bereavement support and a coordinated response between all relevant agencies including schools, colleges, and early years settings. In Australia and the USA, I saw highly-effective examples of referral systems facilitated by the emergency services following suspected suicides, coupled with impressive multi-agency responses which ensured every family was offered timely support in the immediate aftermath of a suspected suicide. Without these vital elements in place, traumatised surviving family members are left with the responsibility to seek out support, while agencies often fail to work together in the best interests of children after a parent or primary caregiver dies by suicide.
- Provide suicide bereavement training for people working with children and young people: My fourth recommendation is that suicide bereavement training should be provided for people working with children and young people in a range of settings. Often, a fear of not knowing what to do or say leads to a vacuum of support and a cloak of silence, which only serves to perpetuate the stigma surrounding suicide. Evidence-based training informed by lived experience equips people with the skills and confidence they need to provide timely support to the young people affected and their families. I am already implementing this recommendation: I successfully piloted this training to schoolteachers, educational pastoral staff and mental health outreach workers in two local authorities in 2021. I look forward to rolling it out across the UK to ensure more professionals are prepared to support children after suicide bereavement.
- Establish an entity to create lasting change for children who lose a parent to suicide: Finally, an entity needs to be identified or formed to take this body of work forward, to improve the support for children impacted by the suicide of a parent or primary caregiver. I believe this is fundamental for building and maintaining the momentum to create meaningful and lasting change for this long-overlooked group.
I’m on the case with the last one, so watch this space…
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.