Last reviewed 11 June 2021

Michael Evans considers the issue of mental health and wellbeing in schools and explores the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mental health issues are no respecter of age

Data from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) suggests that mental health issues are so widespread in the workplace that approximately one in six employees of every organisation is having mental health problems at any one time.

In January 2021, in her final report as Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longford reported that one in every six 5 to 19-year-olds is likely to have a mental health condition. It is sober to reflect that this figure exactly matches RoSPA’s figure for adult workers.

The nature of the problem

Mental health issues do not usually just happen. The charity Young Minds points out that one in every three adult mental health conditions is due to an adverse experience in childhood and those who experienced four or more adversities in childhood, are four times more likely to have low levels of mental wellbeing and life satisfaction as adults.

Anne Longford also referred to a study carried out by the NHS in July 2020. This found that since 2017 there had been a 50% rise in clinically significant mental health conditions among children.

The Schools Wellbeing Partnership is a network of nearly 50 members, coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau. Among a number of its concerns are:

  • half of lifetime mental illness starts by the age of 14

  • suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people

  • in the average classroom, 4 children will have a clinically diagnosed mental health condition.

A problem that shows no sign of slowing down

In answer to a recent parliamentary question from Bambos Charalambous, MP for Enfield and Southgate, the Department of Health and Social Care revealed that in 2017/18, there were 27,487 attendances at A&E by young people with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition. This figure was almost double that of 2012/13, when there were 13,800 equivalent attendances and has nearly tripled since 2010.

Emma Thomas, Chief Executive of Young Minds said that it is alarming to see such a sharp rise in the number of young people arriving in A&E needing support for their mental health. Attendance at an A&E department can be a useful stopgap when a young person can think of nowhere else to turn, but it is usually a crowded and stressful environment, and it is often a most unsuitable place for someone who is in state of crisis.

How effective is support?

Emma Thomas pointed out that a major issue often faced by struggling young people is that due to overstretched crisis services, delays in getting help usually cause problems to escalate.

1,531 parents whose children have experienced a mental health crisis were recently questioned by Young Minds.

  • 61% described their child’s care in a crisis as being “bad” or “unacceptable”

  • 75% agreed that it would have been helpful for their child to have had a safe place to go to while they were in a crisis within their local community

  • 86% agreed that it would have been helpful for their child to have had access to support before crisis point had been reached.

Young Minds points to a number of indicators showing a need for more support:

  • less than 1% of the total NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health services

  • fewer than 1 in 3 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to NHS care and treatment

  • in 2017/18, the average median waiting time was 5 weeks for children to receive an initial assessment and 9 weeks to receive treatment

  • a Young Minds survey indicated that 76% of parents believed that their child’s mental health had deteriorated while waiting for support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

  • the tripling of the number of A&E attendances since 2010 of young people aged 18 or under who have attended A&E with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric problem.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the wellbeing of children and young people. While some have coped with lockdown and the consequent isolation moderately well, others have not. One group that has been particularly hard hit are young carers.

The Mental Health Foundation reports that in a survey of nearly 1,000 young carers, over half have felt overwhelmed and stressed, causing a detrimental effect on their mental health. Around a third said that they struggled to get emotional support and the survey pointed out that not only did these young people need more practical support, but also more access to online or in-person peer support.

The curtailment of support for children with disabilities has created similar problems. These children have undoubtedly suffered as a result of enforced isolation.

During lockdown there has been a notable increase in domestic violence and many young people have been traumatised by this. In addition, while many have been forced to cope when close relatives have become seriously ill, others have had to struggle with bereavement when relatives and friends died as a result of the pandemic.

Loneliness was another key factor relating to mental health and wellbeing during lockdown. For young people, peer interaction is important for brain development, self-concept construction and ultimately mental health and wellbeing. Social media can be a great help, but it cannot replace physical interaction with friends.

Many young people have been consumed by worries concerning their education. Younger children have missed out on the important transitions from primary to secondary school, while older pupils have had to cope with missed exams and uncertainties relating to further and higher education and future employment.

In normal times, a young person seeking support with problems relating to mental health and wellbeing, would be likely to turn to a trusted teacher as first port of call. During lockdown this was no longer possible, and many troubled young people did not know which way to turn.

Government action

On 10 May 2021, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness week, the Government announced the provision of more than £17 million to improve mental health and wellbeing in schools and colleges.

Included in the announcement was:

  • new funding to train thousands of senior mental health leads, for school and college staff and to provide helpful resources

  • continuation of the Government’s commitment to making mental health and wellbeing a central part of education recovery work.

To break this down, £9.5 million is to be made available during the next academic year for up to 7,800 English schools to train a member of staff as a mental health lead.

A further £7 million will support the Wellbeing for Education Recovery programme, which provides free expert training, support and resources for staff who are working with children and young people who during the past year have experienced additional pressures such as trauma, anxiety, and grief. This programme was launched by the DfE last summer and is now reportedly being used by 90% of councils.

Hope for the future

This is obviously excellent news, but much of this support will not come until late in the next academic year. Meanwhile the mental health problems of many children and young people continue to deteriorate. For them any delay is far too long.

Summary

  • Mental health issues are no respecter of age. RoSPA reports that these issues effect one in six of the working population and the outgoing Children’s Commissioner quoted the same figure for 5 to 19-year-olds.

  • Numbers of children with mental health issues continue to rise. A 2020 NHS study suggests that cases had risen 50% in three years.

  • Numbers of children and young people presenting at A&E needing support for their mental health has tripled since 2010.

  • Overstretched crisis services led to poor or delayed support.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has created a range of circumstances that have had a significant effect on the wellbeing of children and young people.

  • To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, the Government announced the provision of more than £17 million to improve mental health and wellbeing in schools. £9.5 million of this will be made available in the next academic year to train staff as mental health leads.

  • A further £7 million will support the Wellbeing for Education Recovery programme to support children and young people suffering from issues such as trauma, anxiety, and grief.

  • This progress is excellent news, but swift action is necessary to prevent further deterioration of the mental health of affected young people.