The mental health crisis in our schools

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Latest statistics provided by Action for Children suggests that a third of secondary school pupils suffer from mental health problems. In this article, Suzanne O’Connell considers some of the conclusions from a recent report on how schools are supporting their students.

For many years, the mental health needs of children and young people have come in for relatively little attention. However, rising concern coming from schools, the health service and children’s charities eventually took hold and the Government published Future in Mind: Promoting, Protecting and Improving Our Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing in March 2015.

However, in spite of this new commitment, there is little indication that the mental health crisis is being effectively tackled. A recent survey by Action for Children found that a third of secondary school pupils experience mental health issues. Young people are reported to be increasingly concerned about their future and are feeling pressurised over school work and social media.

Action for Children identifies the common issues as being:

  • feeling depressed

  • restless sleep

  • inability to shake negative feelings even with the help of family and friends

  • an inability to “get going”

  • struggling to focus their mind on what they are doing

  • everything is feeling “an effort”.

A recent National Audit Office report, Improving Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services, suggested that in spite of the Government’s ambitions, it still has not delivered value for money on this area. Its report “limited visibility of activity and spending outside the health sector” indicates that there is a long way to go, particularly as demand might be greater than first thought.

Schools’ obligations

2017 saw the publication of the Green Paper, Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision. Schools’ role in this is recognised and the department is keen to ensure that schools are taking positive action.

There are already a number of obligations for schools that are linked to mental health. These include the publication of online policies and information on:

  • school behaviour and anti-bullying

  • special educational needs (SEN)

  • equality

  • school values

  • curriculum

  • pupil premium.

The Equality Act 2010 requires that all schools publish a policy or statement on equality. Reference is made in it to mental illness as a disability that can have a long-term effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

There is currently no duty for schools to have a separate mental health policy, but they are expected to promote and protect the welfare of pupils as set out in Keeping Children Safe in Education. There are also duties for schools to ensure that pupils with additional educational needs, including those in relation to mental health, are provided with adequate support.

The document, Mental Health and Wellbeing Provision in Schools: Review of Published Policies and Information, was commissioned to research the current context and the approaches that schools are currently taking. It is expected that this will then form the basis from which the department can issue guidance on how the situation can be improved.

The study focused on the published policies and information that schools are supplying. The researchers were looking for evidence of a whole-school approach towards a respectful school community. They looked at 100 school websites and analysed 11 school policy areas.

What schools are publishing?

The researchers found that all the schools they looked at had published policies on their values and ethos, and all primary schools had published policies on SEN. 91% of secondary schools had published SEN policies. Every primary school had also published policies on behaviour with two secondary schools failing to do so.

In some cases where a policy was legally required but was not evident on the website, a notice there informed the reader that it was only temporarily unavailable. However, this was not always the case and some schools are still not publishing everything they are expected to.

It is perhaps not surprising given that it is not a requirement — that only 4% of primary schools have a published policy online in relation to mental health and even fewer secondary schools (2%). However, this does not necessarily mean that schools do not provide mental health support.

What are schools doing?

Schools may not have had a specific mental health policy but evidence from other policies suggested that 56% of primary schools and 44% of secondary schools were providing some form of mental health support. This includes:

  • targeted support for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties

  • universal support to promote pupils’ self-esteem and resilience

  • a combination of both targeted and universal support.

Targeted support

Targeted support in secondary schools includes:

  • externally provided counselling

  • one-to-one sessions with a school pastoral team member

  • anger management classes

  • targeted individual interventions to raise self-esteem

  • small group interventions to raise self-esteem.

Targeted support in primary schools includes:

  • one-to-one therapeutically-based sessions with school staff

  • externally provided counselling and play therapy

  • interventions as part of schools’ Nurture Programme.

There was also evidence that a small number of primary schools were using standardised mental health screening tools to identify pupils with additional support needs.

Universal support

Some schools could be seen to be using preventive activities to promote mental health and wellbeing.

Universal support in secondary schools includes:

  • school wellbeing centres

  • school nurture approaches

  • school pastoral teams

  • home liaison workers

  • mental health education within the curriculum

  • promoting exercise such as school gym facilities

  • engaging with a local farm for work on self-esteem.

Universal support in primary schools includes:

  • school nurture approaches

  • forest school approaches

  • circle time

  • classes on self-esteem and resilience

  • mental health and wellbeing within the curriculum.

Although the majority of schools were not displaying standalone mental health and wellbeing policies, the report is optimistic that whole-school coherent strategies are evident in some schools (29% primary and 18% secondary).

The report provides some useful links to some of the specific schemes and interventions that schools have adopted, and these might be useful for other schools to explore. The approaches identified are divided into four groups including programmes to support.

  1. Equality.

  2. Mental health and wellbeing.

  3. Behaviour.

  4. Standardised scales.

They can be found in Annex D of the report.

Conclusions

The review of policies research was only a desk-based exercise which does not tell us about the quality of provision or the extent to which policies were adhered to. However, it provides some interesting insight into schools’ approaches, the policies and the strategies they are using.

The author concludes that schools should consider the extent to which their standalone interventions are embedded in whole-school strategies. Although policies indicated that many Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator’s (SENCO) had accessed training, it is suggested that there should be greater emphasis on them understanding the mental health needs of pupils with SEND.

Mental health and wellbeing were often referred to within schools’ behaviour policies. This suggests a close link between mental health and behavioural difficulties. This can be the case, but schools should also ensure that they recognise and can support pupils who are not behaving in disruptive ways but who suffer from anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicidal thoughts.

As mental health has worked its way close to the top of many schools’ agenda, it is worth examining the extent to which your policies reflect a co-ordinated approach. With a change of direction for Ofsted imminent, the issue of how schools provide for the pupils’ mental health is one that we can expect to receive more official recognition.

Amanda Spielman has already indicated that there will be Ofsted judgments for both personal development and behaviour and attitudes in the 2019 framework. We can expect that somewhere in here, schools will need to demonstrate that they are taking the mental health of their students seriously and have strategies in place, both targeted and universal, to meet their needs.

Action points

  • Review current publications and ensure that the schools’ obligations are met.

  • Consider whether interventions are embedded in a whole-school strategy.

  • Review the SENCO’s current training log and whether this includes mental health awareness.

  • Ensure that it is not only more challenging pupils who have their mental health needs be addressed.

More information

Last reviewed 19 December 2018

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