Research highlights the need for children to understand and look after their mental health

Mental health resources in schools are under more pressure than ever. 90% of school leaders have reported an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety or stress over the last five years.

Research shows that schools struggle to prioritise wellbeing. Financial constraints and the changing regulation framework mean that schools are “already having to make tough decisions about which services to cut” and in an environment where pupil outcomes are under the microscope, wellbeing provision is in danger of being side-lined.

Overwhelming demand

An estimated three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health problem. Students with varying levels of distress are being let down by a system quite literally overwhelmed by demand. One said their teacher had no understanding of what they were going through – and it became clear that none of the other teachers did either, “I got a detention that day for having a panic attack”.

Most of the children with mental health disorders – three out of four – won’t receive counselling, therapy or medication. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are swamped and the NHS cannot meet the demand for services. The average maximum waiting time for a first appointment with CAMHS is 26 weeks, and it can take 42 weeks until the start of treatment.

Rise in school-based counsellors

A recent survey carried out by school leaders’ union, NAHT and children’s mental health charity Place2Be reveals that schools are taking direct action. In 2016, 36% of schools in England provided school-based support for students with emotional and mental wellbeing issues. By 2019, this had almost double to 66%. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said that commissioning resource in this area has to be applauded, but “this is another area where schools are being forced to use scant resources for urgent provision that is not provided for in their budgets.

Red flags

Because schools are a universal service accessed five days a week by most children, teachers and educational professionals are at the front line when it comes to warning signs. When there are red flags such as mood changes, symptoms such as headaches or stomach ache, repeated absence or a lack of engagement, the school’s safeguarding officer or counsellor should get involved.

No one can doubt that schools are busy places. Teachers have many demands on their time, and may not have the skills or training to deal with mental health and wellbeing disorders with confidence. But this is surely a lost opportunity. Not only do children who suffer from mental health disorders find it harder to learn, the longer there are problems are left, the more entrenched they are likely to be become. Just as with physical illness, it makes no sense to wait until crisis point before intervening.

Whole-school approach

All adults in the lives of our young people can be involved in the provision of a mentally healthy environment. With the support of parents/carers, school staff can take a whole-school approach and work towards creating a safe, caring setting. Moreover, if adults confidently demonstrate resilience and coping mechanisms to counteract poor, uninformed behavioural examples the positive impact is significant. This movement has widespread backing – 70% of teachers in YoungMinds’ survey agreed that the Government should rebalance the education system to focus more on the wellbeing of students, and 73% of parents would prefer to send their child to a school where children are generally happy although previous exam results have not been good.

Crucially, some mentally healthy schools are facilitating a multi-faceted and ongoing conversation about wellbeing. Support is implemented and talked about at every level - leadership, pupils, teachers, curriculum, support workers, parents and carers alike are all involved. It’s active change designed to prevent all young people feeling alone and powerless in the face of their mental health challenges.

As a last word – even in Children’s Mental Health Week – we should not underestimate how difficult it is for teachers and social workers to deal with this crisis on a day-to-day basis. 93% of teachers taking part in the YoungMinds research agreed that their stress levels ‘sometimes impact’ on the way they interact with pupils. There is an issue of expertise and confidence too. Without appropriate support, they simply can’t be expected to deliver a whole-school approach to wellbeing and resilience through the curriculum, school culture and beyond.