Last reviewed 23 July 2020

Michael Evans considers the increasing problem of mental illness among children and young people, particularly in the light of their enforced isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Government initiatives to deal with this problem are also considered.

The stresses of home schooling

There is no doubt that six months away from school, including many weeks of lockdown, have had a serious effect on the mental health of countless numbers of children and young people. For some it was the enforced isolation and the lack of physical contact with friends, but for others it was being confined to a fractious and often violent household.

The lucky ones had their own PC and a quiet room to work, with access to Zoom via a good internet link that kept them in touch with their friends, their teachers and a structured programme of work.

In the real-world this was not always the case and in some cases online lessons were less effective. Even when the home had a PC or laptop, this had to be shared and quiet spaces for work were often out of the question. Also, many families were simply unable to afford the monthly cost of high-quality broadband access.

Small wonder that the mental health of many young people began to suffer.

A long-term problem

Unfortunately, concerns about the mental health of pupils is nothing new. In April 2019 the Guardian was reporting that it was ‘at crisis point’. In a survey of 8,600 adults working in schools, 83% said that they had witnessed an increasing deterioration of the mental health among the pupils in their care.

Pressures on young people can be immense. Apart from the overwhelming pressure and number of exams, ever evolving social media platforms can lead to feelings of inadequacy as teens compare themselves with their peers. Many young people also have further responsibilities that contribute to stress and worry. Around 700,000 are classified as young carers and around 80% of these completely miss out on childhood experiences. Family poverty can also be a major contributor to stress.

Statistics reveal that 75% of mental illnesses start before the age of 18 and 10% of children have a diagnosable mental illness. This means that in a class of 30 pupils, three of them are likely to have a mental health problem but less than a quarter will ever receive any form of treatment.

All this of course is what was happening before we got hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

What can be done?

In spite of its growing profile, to more than 50% of young people mental illness is still regarded as embarrassing. Mental health continues to be a taboo subject and many feel that they will be unfavourably judged if they try to explain their problems.

Something that has been widely publicised in recent months is the importance of talking about worries and negative feelings. One solution is for schools to devote a certain amount of time each week where pupils can socialise and focus on something other than the curriculum. Lunchtime clubs involving just about any non-academic activity can give pupils a chance to take their minds off worrying issues.

For months, many pupils have effectively been isolated. Activities such as these can restore a sense of community where young people can feel included. It is also essential for them to know that they can talk to a trusted adult about any issues or concerns that they might have.

Government initiatives

The government is now pouring money into mental health initiatives and has already invested more than £9 million in mental health charities to help them to expand, in order to reach those most in need.

In an effort to deal with the impact of coronavirus on mental health and wellbeing in schools, an online package of resources is being put together designed to boost mental health support for staff and pupils.

The intention is to work with charities to produce videos, webinars and teaching materials. These will then be made available to schools and colleges with the aim of helping to foster conversations about mental health and to reassure many young people who are worried about the impact of the virus on their lives.

As more pupils return to the classroom, following the anticipated wider opening of schools, the DfE has announced grants worth more than £750,000 for the Diana Award, the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Anne Frank Trust. These are intended to help schools and colleges to build relationships between pupils, to boost their resilience and to continue to tackle bullying, both in person and online.

Additional funding of £45,000 to Timewise will provide practical support and resources on flexible working in the light of new arrangements for schools responding to coronavirus.

Another issue that is often overlooked, is that of the mental health of school leaders, teachers and support staff. In an effort to address this, a £95,000 pilot project is being established with the Educational Support Partnership that will provide online expert peer support and telephone supervision to around 250 school leaders. It is hoped that this will just be a beginning.

Some final quotes

  • “We cannot underestimate the long-term effects that this pandemic will have, especially on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.” (Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind)

  • “There has never been a more important time to speak about mental health and wellbeing… The challenges we face at this time mean that we are all likely to feel anxious and sad, no matter our age or circumstances.” (Vicky Ford, Children and Families Minister)

  • “The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the importance of looking after our mental health. It is very normal during these uncertain and unusual times to be experiencing distress or anxiety. What is important is that you get help.” (Nadine Dories, Minister for Mental Health)

  • “The mental health and wellbeing of teachers and senior leaders must sit at the heart of our education system.” (Sinead McBrearty, CEO of Education Support Partnership).

Conclusion

  • Schools should conduct an audit of all pupils to determine the levels of stress that they have been subjected to during lockdown.

  • Procedures should be put in place to identify pupils in need of special support with mental health issues.

  • Schools should set aside regular informal sessions for pupils where they can socialise in a relaxed environment and where they are encouraged to talk freely about issues that concern them.

  • In the event of continued remote working, schools should ensure that pupils are adequately provisioned with suitable hardware, eg laptops, and should receive appropriate academic support.

  • The issue of support for the mental health of school leaders and other staff should not be overlooked and provision should be made for it to be continually monitored.