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'Baffling' failures over suicide

A review into the death of a high-achieving teenager who killed herself has said there was a "baffling" failure by professionals to recognise the warning signs.

Helena Farrell, 15, hanged herself at a beauty spot near her home in Kendal, Cumbria on January 4, 2013.

The teenager, a pupil at Kirkbie Kendal School, in Kendal, was academically very able and gifted in sports and music, playing hockey and also attending the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

But Helena, whose mother Maria is a GP, was suffering from bulimia after an alleged sex attack while on a school trip abroad months earlier.

Helena had also been "heartbroken" after the break-up of a brief relationship with a boy at her school.

She had taken an overdose and self-harmed, an inquest into her death heard last week, and written letters of farewell to friends and relatives.

But Helena had not been deemed to be a risk to herself and a referral to a mental health service near her home led to no action being taken for a month.

She was later assessed by a social worker at Cumbria's Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) as posing no imminent risk to herself just a day before she died in January 2013.

The teenager's parents, Enda and Maria Farrell, who are originally from Galway, Ireland, have said they felt their daughter was let down by the system supposed to help children and young people suffering mental anguish.

Coroner for south and east Cumbria Ian Smith heard during the inquest that the CAMHS was in disarray.

The coroner found that Helena's death was a consequence of her own actions, though her intention was not beyond reasonable doubt.

The review into her death was carried out by Cumbria Local Safeguarding Children Board, to learn lessons from the death.

In the official report Helena is referred to as "Child J".

The report said: "The consensus view of all the professionals involved at this time (shared by Child J's parents) was that Child J's behaviour was a 'normal', histrionic adolescent response to a romantic disappointment (she had recently broken up with her boyfriend)."

The report adds: "The failure of professionals from all agencies to recognise the full extent of Child J's difficulties and take protective action is at first baffling in the face of mounting evidence that she was at high risk of suicide."

The report said the review represents "feedback" to the Board on how well the child protection system functions in Cumbria.

The 42-page review says: "These messages may be painful to hear and the solutions to the problems the findings identify will not necessarily be easy to find."

The review identified a "lack of knowledge among a range of professionals" about the evidence for high risk indicators for teenage suicide leaving them "ill equipped" to recognise the signs and respond accordingly.

There is also a "lack of appreciation of the 'inner world of teenagers' and there was "false reassurance" that children will receive the help that they need.

It also questioned whether health professionals relied on the ability of Helena's parents, "apparently engaged, professional, parents" to protect her, and whether this affected their judgment in deciding on the need for intervention for the youngster".

Richard Simpson, assistant director (children's services) for Barnardo's Cumbria and chairman of Cumbria Local Safeguarding Children Board at the time of the report's writing, said: "The review report asks some serious and difficult questions for which there are few simple or straightforward answers.

"It is impossible to guarantee that a situation like this will not happen again, but the action plan that has been developed is our considered response to the findings and outlines the steps that will be taken to minimise that risk as far as possible.

"When any child dies it is a tragedy, but especially so in these circumstances. If there are families or young people out there struggling with similar issues I strongly encourage them seek out help."

NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) clinical GP lead, children and safeguarding, Dr Amanda Boardman, said: "Helena was a beautiful and talented young lady and will be deeply missed by all that knew her.

"Working with our partners, we are responding to the changing needs of children and teenagers in a world unrecognisable 20 years ago.

"The explosion of social media and pressures felt by young people has never been greater, and we are adapting and changing the services designed to protect children and young people to meet their needs."

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