Mental Health: Just a sticking plaster?

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

Immediate action is needed to support young people’s mental health, but this will be nothing but a sticking plaster unless we tackle the roots causes of the increasing problems

Last month we marked the annual World Teachers’ Day – a day to celebrate teachers’ vital contribution, not least to ensuring we meet the needs of future generations.

The issue of pupils’ mental health is therefore of great concern to teachers and the wider education workforce.

The causes of increasing mental health problems are many and complex, and not confined to education.

Some of the rise in reported cases may be attributed to the reduced stigma associated with mental health. That is positive. Greater acceptance makes it easier for pupils to seek, or be referred for, help.

The problem is the availability of that help. Despite support provided through school pastoral services, there’s a lack of specialist resources.

NHS funding cuts have, it appears, led to a strategy which has raised the threshold at which pupils become eligible for intervention and increased waiting times to access services.

Rather than save money, such strategies increase the cost of intervention, leaving schools to pick up the pieces while desperately trying to avoid any further decline in pupils’ mental wellbeing.

That half of excluded pupils suffer from a recognised mental health problem indicates the likely impact being felt across the school community.

Other pupils and staff are affected through disruption of school life. Learning is interrupted because pupil behaviour exacerbated by undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions has a negative impact on the academic performance and aspirations of all pupils, not only those enduring the trauma of mental illness.

The government’s forthcoming Green Paper on mental health and education, anticipated this autumn term, therefore has much to live up to.

Any policy proposals must be comprehensive and transform mental health services, and access to them, for all pupils.

Essential specialist services must be well resourced, readily available and delivered by those with the relevant expertise.

Additional investment in services over the next three years and the policy intention to train staff in mental health first aid is welcome, and demonstrates that government has listened to the concerns of professionals, even if it is not increasing resources. The many emerging strategies to enable schools to develop and implement a whole-school approach to wellbeing are welcome, although it can be difficult navigating the many options.

Immediate action is essential to avoid a crisis, but what of the bigger picture? Without addressing drivers within and beyond education, immediate action may only prove to be a sticking plaster for a much bigger problem.

Those many drivers outside the school gate are associated with social, welfare and financial issues, not least poverty.

The drivers or contributors in education affect not only pupil wellbeing, but also that of staff. Therefore, any policy must consider how schools are being held to account for academic achievement at all costs, given it is a significant driver of workload and stress for pupils through the culture of constant testing.

Schools want to contribute to solutions, within the context of their academic and pastoral responsibilities, but they require capacity, resources and easy access to specialist services to support pupils.

Recent surveys have quoted unprecedented numbers of teachers, teaching assistants and school leaders as experiencing high levels of work-related stress and psychological or physical symptoms.

These are also identified as contributing factors for those leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement, exacerbating the recruitment and retention crisis.

These findings, like the recent Voice survey of member stress, demonstrate that the need for a coordinated, multi-agency policy for whole-school health and wellbeing has never been greater. It is to be hoped that the final policy will seek to identify and address those drivers specific to education.

School staff want to participate to ensure the best outcome for their pupils, but this can only be achieved with multi-agency cooperation and the capacity within all agencies to build the relationships which promote cooperation and breed success.

In the meantime, we must remember to celebrate all schools and their teams for all the work they do supporting pupils, regardless of their needs.


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