The growing mental health challenge

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Building wellbeing is one thing, but helping pupils with complex mental health issues requires professional expertise from local health services, says Anna Feuchtwang.

Self-harm by young people is on the rise. According to NHS figures obtained by the BBC, the number of young people aged 10 to 19 admitted to hospital with self-harm injuries has risen by 20 per cent. The majority of these young people, it seems, are self-harming to divert themselves from psychological states too distressing to tolerate.

Schools may be among the first to see a child develop these problems but what can you do to help? Teachers’ unions were quick to point out that schools need support and depleted Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have meant that schools have fewer options when seeking expert advice or to refer a pupil for professional help.

A Parliamentary question revealed that NHS spending on CAMHS has decreased by six per cent in real terms since 2010. The government points to increased funding for help with eating disorders and the development of a strategy to improve school-based counselling (recently announced by minister Sam Gyimah, who is also working with the PSHE Association to improve guidance on mental health teaching within PSHE).

However, mental health services in the community and related wellbeing support such as that provided by youth workers are suffering from a lack of funds and muddled commissioning.

With services providing support for children with acute mental health needs under pressure, the importance of the preventative, early intervention role of schools has never been more important. Ofsted is currently considering proposals for a new inspection framework. These proposals have an increased focus on health and wellbeing and will introduce a new judgement on personal development, behaviour and welfare including through providing staff with professional development opportunities. This is an area of real importance if teachers are to be able to respond to their students’ emerging mental health needs and be able to confidently provide a curriculum that builds wellbeing and resilience.

Under the proposed new inspection framework Ofsted has signalled that inspectors will consider whether the curriculum meets the needs and interests of pupils. Children say they want information on a diverse range of health issues including how to deal with mental health problems and the stigma associated with them. It would be helpful if Ofsted could include specific markers within the framework stating that mental health learning is key.

Ultimately, there should be a whole-school approach to improving students’ mental health, comprised of many components. A whole-school approach to mental health promotion is characterised by a concern for the entirety of school life and the health and wellbeing of students, staff, parents and the community. All pupils should be given the chance to build resilience and to enjoy a sense of achievement. And pupils need to build relationships, both with peers and staff, and be supported at times of pressure, such as during exams or transition.

These issues are being considered by MPs at a series of Parliamentary seminars debating mental health and emotional wellbeing. As I write, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children is hosting one of these events, considering children and young people’s experience of specific situations they face within the school environment, such as bullying and exam stress, and how these impact on their wellbeing. 

However hard schools try to tackle these issues, there will always be those children with problems too big for schools to overcome. For pupils with acute problems, schools will always need robust mental health services to turn to.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk


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