Last reviewed 4 July 2016

Education writer Michael Evans looks at the growing problem of mental health in our schools and how recent research is enabling early identification of potential mental health issues.


According to the charity Young Minds, among 5 to 16-year-olds in our schools, 1 out of 10 is suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Other charities put this figure as high as 1 in 5, while the NHS gives a more cautious figure of 1 in 25. Whichever set of statistics is preferred, it is clear that in any class in any school there is likely to be a significant number of children suffering from some form of mental health issue. If untreated, this can develop into a major disability.

Disability can manifest itself in different ways. Some forms of disability can be quite obvious, especially if the individual concerned is using a wheelchair or carrying a white stick, but mental illness, is not so obvious. Someone suffering from a mental illness usually looks no different from anyone else and often the only way of finding out if someone has a mental illness is if they choose to tell you.

Causes of mental illness

There are many causes of mental illness and it is important to remember that having a mental illness is not through choice or moral failing. Mental illness is no respecter of race, culture or socio-economic group and it occurs at similar rates in every country of the world.

Perhaps because mental health is not as evident as some other forms of disability, it tends to suffer from the “Cinderella syndrome”, leading to a lack of funding and a shortage of good recent data.

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, 4% of UK children suffer from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression and estimates indicate that over 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression. Ten per cent of this number are under the age of ten.

The primary symptoms are sadness, a feeling of hopelessness and mood changes. In many cases, a child will resort to disruptive behaviour in order to mask these symptoms.

Eating disorders are another indication of depression and the number of children calling Childline about eating disorders has more than doubled since 2011. Similarly, the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders has increased by the same amount across the whole of the UK.

Teenage and child depression

The most frequent mental health issues in teenage years include anxiety and depression, eating disorders, serious anti-social behaviour, ADHD and self harm. More rare are psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, but it has been estimated that half of all lifetime cases of psychotic disorders manifest themselves by the age of 14.

Self harm is usually a symptom of depression. Between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 children and young people deliberately self harm and, in the last 10 years, the number of children admitted to hospital as a result of this has risen by 68%. A recent study indicated that among 15-year-olds, 32% of girls and 11% of boys had self harmed. Over half of those interviewed said that they had researched suicide online.

Although suicide is rare among the under twelves, it is estimated that 26% of UK children experience suicidal thoughts at some time. One in 10 UK suicides are by those aged 15–24 and up to 160 young people in England under the age of 20 take their own lives each year. Between 60 and 70 are under the age of 18. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to succeed.

A family history of violence, alcohol abuse and physical or sexual abuse can heighten depression and feelings of hopelessness. Reports suggest that 44% of LGBT people aged between 16 and 24 have considered suicide.

In some cases, a person suffering from a mental illness will behave in an unusual way, causing those around them to feel uncomfortable. The natural reaction to this is to treat this person differently, which may in turn stigmatise them and make them less inclined to seek help.

It is important to remember that although depression is a serious illness, it is treatable and if it is treated early enough it can be prevented from developing into a mental health disorder in later life.

What can you do?

A problem is that often the early symptoms are simply overlooked. Often parents will regard these as simple teenage moodiness, but there can be a more sinister reason. The recommendation is that if these symptoms last for more than two weeks, a general practitioner (GP) should be consulted to ensure that there are no physical reasons for the behaviour.

If nothing physical is identified, the next hurdle is the treatment. In an ideal world, this would take the form of a mental health evaluation which should include interviews with parents and child. Any appropriate additional psychological testing should also be undertaken.

For children as well as adults, treatment for depression will then usually require a combination of psychotherapy and medication, but in many cases, medical and support services are both stretched and limited and a hard-pressed GP will often take a short cut and simply opt for medication.

In fairness, antidepressants have been shown to be very effective, but since all drugs can have side effects, these powerful drugs need to be used with caution. In some cases, they have been known to trigger bouts of manic or hyperactive behaviour.

A recent estimate of the annual cost of mental health in England, which included factors such as lost production and wider impacts on wellbeing, has been put at £105 billion.

Unfortunately, most people with clinical depression never seek treatment and if left untreated, depression can only get worse and can lead to disastrous consequences. It is estimated that by the year 2020, major depression will be second only to ischaemic heart disease in terms of the leading causes of illness in the world.

How can you do it?

The traditional way of dealing with mental health issues among young people has been to wait until they manifest themselves and then to deal with them in the most appropriate way, but a new tool has been developed making it possible to track thinking patterns that may affect the behaviour of pupils.

This tool, known as Affective Social (AS) Tracking was developed over a number of years by cognitive Cognitive scientist Scientist Dr Simon Walker. Using a seven-minute assessment, schools are able to predict with 82% accuracy if a pupil is liable to risks such as self harm, eating disorders or drug abuse.

This quick and easy early warning system is currently being used in 15 schools in both the independent and maintained sectors. The schools involved are extremely enthusiastic and the researchers are now seeking accreditation from the British Psychological Society for what is the first technology of its kind in the world.

The future

Researchers and others now look to the future and a time when it will be possible to screen all young people for early identification of potential mental health issues. This early identification will enable remedial action to be taken to forestall the development of serious conditions that are capable of blighting so many lives.