rev susan brown moderator church scotland safeguarding suicide
Society and Social Structures

Church of Scotland Moderator blames excessive safeguarding for the rise in suicide and self-harm among young people

This is a very brave intervention by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. In an era where the safeguarding of children and young people has never been more pervasive, comprehensive, incisive and inclusive, the Rev’d Susan Brown dares to suggest that “we are seeing the effect of the overly positive coddling of our young people in the sharp rise of anxiety, depression, self-harming and suicidal thoughts among them.” She doesn’t, of course, repudiate the pastoral necessity for ensuring that young people are protected from harm – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – but she takes issue with the contemporary obsession with wrapping them in cotton wool, suggesting that the culture of safeguarding might itself be a cause of harm:

If you are continually told you can achieve whatever goals you set yourself, how prepared are you for those times when failure hits?

What does it do to your self-esteem and your self-confidence when you are not able to reach the goals you yourself have set and everyone has told you are within your grasp?

What happens when you constantly come up against others who are better than you are or are far more successful?

Is it not every bit as harmful to be told unrealistically you can be and do anything, as it is to be told that certain things are more than likely beyond your reach?

There’s a name for it, apparently : ‘failure deprivation’. When the safeguarding of young people extends from the imperative of protecting them from sexual exploitation to the nebulous pursuit of ensuring that their feelings aren’t hurt, they simply never learn how to cope with the school of hard knocks. Thus discipline, self-control, enforced respect and the demand for hard work are all literally Hitler: the task of the carers is to shield vulnerable hearts, minds and souls from all evil, of which hurt feelings and rejection are the fons et origo.

The Rev’d Susan Brown speaks from experience, having been emotionally raped by one of her teachers:

I also distinctly remember being told as my final year at high school drew to a close, that there was no way I would get to university.

I still remember the guidance teacher. Her name and face are deeply imprinted on my brain because her remarks that day scarred me.

Today, such a teacher would most likely be disciplined if not summarily dismissed. And yet what fruit came from this trauma:

The lesson she passed on was one in the harsh realities of life – one that taught me things do not always work out the way we want them to, and that nothing is an automatic given.

It is a hard and painful lesson to learn, but at the same time, it is also true that it is through facing what does not go right that we tend to learn the most.

From a Christian perspective, remembering our faults and our failures is something that is very much a part of the pattern of faithful living.

Whenever we talk to God, we do so bearing in mind his greatness and our feebleness.

And we do that not to be kept in our place, but in order to experience the refreshing freedom that comes from God’s willingness to work with us so that we might learn from the past and so that we may find a far greater future opening up for us.

Perhaps, as well as applauding those who achieve, we should applaud even more loudly those who have tried and failed, and then tried again.

And we should celebrate those who are willing to go beyond their comfort zone to try things they may not be able instantly to do.

These are the people who will find they have the skills they need to be all they can be – which is happier and healthier and more rounded human beings.

There is here a sound understanding of the human condition and the reality of human nature. Not everyone who hurls a harsh word is guilty of ‘abuse’: they don’t all merit being reported to the police for ‘non-crime’ hate, because some people are just terse and obnoxious, and it’s not entirely their fault. Safeguarding is a social construct which is designed to protect the individual from harm, yet individuals manifestly respond differently to that harm: some cope and it strengthens them; others do not cope and it kills them. Literally. When a university records 10 student deaths in 18 months, something is clearly amiss: “There’s a real sense of anxiety and worry, which is entirely appropriate,” said Prof Hugh Brady, Bristol University’s vice-chancellor. “When you have three deaths in such quick succession – at any time of year, but especially just coming up to exams – it’s a worrying time for the institution.”

The Moderator of the Church of Scotland suggests that the seeds of this tragedy may have been sown many years before – perhaps in the nurturing home; perhaps at the mollycoddling school. Might the ‘bigger picture’ entertain the revolutionary notion that pastoral care has moved too far from the healing, sustaining, guiding and reconciling of troubled persons, toward obsessions with prevention, avoidance, deterrent and inhibition? Instead of a problem-centred approach arising from the unavoidable realities of the human condition, we have become more concerned with the elimination of sin and sorrow.

What kind of Moderator would the Rev’d Susan Brown be if she had been perpetually shielded by her faith community from all harsh words and obnoxious teachers? How would this have affected her personal and social formation? What would this have taught her about coping with hurt feelings or reconciling relationships? What would be her theological perspective on human security, social safety or eternal salvation? Indeed, if the Rev’d Susan Brown had been safeguarded diligently as a missional imperative – protected from all emotional, psychological and spiritual harm as a matter of pastoral priority – would she be Moderator of the Church of Scotland at all?