Mental health: ‘You literally have to be suicidal’

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, National Education Union

With mental health support services at breaking point, chronic underfunding and an exam factory culture are driving a mental health crisis in schools, says Kevin Courtney

The current draconian approach to the education of children and young people is turning our schools into exam factories and squeezing the joy and creativity out of the classroom.

As a result, more and more children and young people are being diagnosed with depression and the levels of unhappiness are soaring.

The latest National Education Union survey of more than 8,000 teachers asked about the mental health of children and young people. It showed that 83 per cent of the respondents had seen an increase in the number of student mental health problems in the past two years.

Education policy dictated by government and based on the presumption that everything that can be learnt should be measured is pushing schools and students to the limit.

Testing now starts as young as four years-of-age and continues through primary and secondary.

Teachers at every stage of children and young people’s education are forced to be less concerned about the individual and more concerned about hitting Ofsted’s and the government’s ever-changing targets.

The end result? Many stressed children, who see their value and the value of education only in terms of the level they have reached. Our members have conveyed tragedies that could be prevented by proper government funding of mental health and wellbeing support services. They are also concerned about the effects of the “exam factory” culture of over-testing, which is so damaging to young people.

The number of young people with mental ill health has increased significantly since 2017, but this survey makes very clear that resources simply cannot keep pace with demand. The chronic underfunding of schools and external mental health services is making matters worse.

There was an overwhelming response from members when we asked if they had noticed a change in the number of student mental health problems in the past two years.

Teachers spoke of the increased levels of anxiety and one teacher told us: “Much more anxiety, self-harming. Three suicides in three years in my school alone.”

We asked members if they had the right provisions in their workplace for supporting pupils with mental health issues. While a majority of teachers (59 per cent) reported they had learning support assistants, less than 50 per cent reported a school counsellor. Only 30 per cent identified external specialist support.

One teacher commented that the impact of mental health issues in their school was “like a slow-motion car crash for our young people that I am powerless to stop and can’t bear to watch or be part of anymore”.

Another said: “CAMHS is pointless – you literally have to be suicidal to get through triage.”
These are alarming reports of a growing crisis in our schools and society. It is very clear that this government’s policies on education and school funding are contributing to a terrible and destructive situation for young people and school staff. Schools cannot solve this alone and the government’s underfunding of public services is damaging the next generation from an early age.

Teachers are also witnessing an increase in child poverty and its terrible effects, which can all too often impact negatively on mental health.

Above all, this is about pupils, and it is incumbent upon the education system to do all it can to support anyone with mental health problems.

The English education system is badly in need of new thinking. We need a curriculum that is more relevant, inclusive and creative. Many organisations (from the CBI to the TUC) are also calling for a different approach to education, and the NEU fully supports them.

  • Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.


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