Research tells us that half of all lifetime mental illness (excluding dementia) starts by the age of 14. So it follows that all adults who work and volunteer with children have a role in ensuring we spot the signs of mental illness and respond appropriately. Furthermore, outside the home, teachers are among those best placed to recognise mental health problems in young people, but are they sufficiently prepared to respond effectively?
This point was illustrated by a young women speaking at the launch of MindEd’s online mental health training (www.minded.org.uk) recently.
She had struggled with depression as a teenager when she changed schools but no-one noticed how withdrawn she had become or how difficult she was finding it to cope. Luckily, she found the support she needed, but many don’t.
A survey conducted to mark the launch found that only 38 per cent of adults knew how to spot the early signs of mental health issues, and half said they would hesitate to intervene for fear of being wrong. Inevitably, this means that many children are slipping through the net and failing to get access to the support and treatment they need.
Currently, initial teacher education provides limited insight into young people’s wellbeing and mental health needs. Only so much can be addressed in a short timescale and important subjects, such as wellbeing and mental health, have to vie for space in the programme with the vast range of knowledge and skills development the trainee teacher needs.
Often it is only when the NQT starts building sustained relationships with students, and fully understands the context of the school they are working in that they realise why this is such an important issue. To fill this gap, NQTs require a source of training and development that they can access whenever they have a moment to spare.
MindEd has been designed to provide the extra information teachers and other professionals working with children and young people need. Based on the best clinical advice and research, it offers free online training and information about child mental health. Training pathways are tailored to the needs of different groups of professionals and practitioners, including police officers, youth workers, counsellors, health professionals, social workers and teachers.
Of course, while teachers can spot the signs, effective treatment often takes place beyond the school gates. Unfortunately, childhood and adolescent mental health services are insufficiently funded and in many places have been subject to significant budget cuts.
It is good to see that they are starting to be talked about more often by policy-makers because we need wellbeing and mental health to be given a much higher priority.
There is a lack of parity, both with services for physical health and with mental health services for adults: only six per cent of all spending on mental health goes to provision for children and young people.
The government has recently unveiled its mental health strategy, and emphasises that it has invested millions in an improving access to psychological therapies programme which it says will “transform services”, covering six out of 10 children and young people under 19 by 2015.
To support this, we need an action plan joining up solutions across all agencies, and integrating effectively with schools. Initiatives like MindEd can help teachers and other practitioners to feel more confident in recognising and initially responding to mental health issues, but we also need effective services to provide treatment and support, otherwise we risk identifying those at risk without providing the treatment they urgently require.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk