PM's mental health prevention plan overlooks austerity and our exam factory culture

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If the prime minister’s plans to train new teachers to spot the signs of mental health difficulties are to be effective, action will also be needed on school funding, the “exam factory” culture of testing, and the impact of poverty and inequality, it was said this week.

Teachers have welcomed Theresa May’s plans to “overhaul society’s approach to mental illness” but have warned that she is overlooking the impact of funding cuts on schools and wider services such as CAMHS.

At the heart of Ms May’s new prevention plan, which was unveiled earlier this month, is giving frontline professionals the “confidence and skills” to identify mental health issues before they become critical, particularly in young people.

This is to include training for all new teachers on how to spot the signs of mental health issues and updated statutory guidance to make clear schools’ responsibilities to protect children’s mental wellbeing.

She has promised support for school mental health leads to help children struggling with self-harm and risk of suicide and the publication of teaching and training materials for schools.

Further details of how the plans are to be enacted and whether additional funding will be made available are yet to be revealed.

Outside education, the plans include:

  • Training for NHS staff.
  • Updated professional standards for social workers.
  • Support for local authority suicide prevention plans.
  • Advice for parents on issues such as stress, online bullying and self-harm.
  • A £1 million grant to the Office of Students to find innovative new ways to support mental health at universities and colleges.
  • Updating the support that health visitors and others give to new parents about babies’ behavioural and emotional development.

Ms May said that the Mental Health Act would also be overhauled to take action against “undignified and unequal treatment” of those suffering mental health difficulties.

Ms May said: “We should never accept a rise in mental health problems as inevitable. It’s time to rethink how we tackle this issue, which is why I believe the next great revolution in mental health should be in prevention. The measures we’ve launched today will make sure at every stage of life, for people of all backgrounds, preventing mental illness gets the urgent attention it deserves.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: “We welcome the sustained momentum from the prime minister and government to improving support for people with mental health problems. It is particularly positive to see such priority given to young people’s mental health – our recent work in schools has shown us the true scale of the need and, as most mental health problems start in childhood, decent support as early as possible is key.”

The announcement comes after the government’s 2018 Green Paper Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, which also emphasised prevention and early intervention at school.

As part of this, £95 million was invested to offer free training for a designated mental health lead in every school and college in England. The first two years of this training was offered by Mental Health First Aid England in 2017 and 2018. The final year of training is being offered by the Anna Freud charity.

Commenting on the plans, Deborah Lawson, general secretary of the Voice teaching union, said that teachers are aware of their responsibilities to protect children’s wellbeing and would welcome specialist guidance on mental health issues.

However, she added: “The causes of increasing mental health problems are many and complex, and not confined to education. A mental health strategy for schools can only succeed when it is part of a wider multi-agency approach that reaches across society to change attitudes, too, backed by substantial austerity-reversing investment in our public services.

“NHS funding cuts have increased waiting times to access services, leaving schools with no other option but to pick up the pieces while desperately trying to avoid any further decline in pupils’ mental wellbeing.

“Austerity has led to savage cuts to pastoral support, with school staff wanting to offer more support but lacking the resources to do so. This announcement may only prove to be a sticking plaster unless wider social, welfare and financial issues, such as poverty and lack of opportunities, are addressed.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, echoed the sentiment, adding that accountability and exam factory culture must also change.

She said: “If the prime minister is genuine about wanting to focus on prevention, then a cross-government strategy on tackling poverty and inequality is needed. The ‘exam factory’ culture of testing, driven from Whitehall, is one significant cause of anxiety and low self-esteem among young people.

“Schools need strong pastoral systems, but teachers cannot cover for the cuts to mental health specialists. Recognising the early signs is important but timely routes to appropriate professional treatment is essential. At the moment referrals lead to long waiting times – children and young people should not have to threaten or attempt suicide before accessing CAMHS. The growing problem of child mental health illness must be tackled by much greater capacity in specialist service, matched with the reversal of cuts to school budgets’’.

  • For more on the final year of the government-funded mental health training for secondary school staff, visit www.annafreud.org/mhat


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