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Mental health plans ‘failing a generation’

  • Mental Health
  • Schools
  • Teachers
Mike Hodgkiss
Mike Hodgkiss 01 July, 2018

Mental health plans ‘failing a generation’

Sally, now 20, believes her mental distress should have been spotted years before she received treatment that helped her. She says she became ill when she first started secondary school. Teachers noticed, describing her as “an odd child”, but in the end it was Sally herself who had to ask her doctor for help and she was 16 and on the edge of suicide before she got any effective treatment.


Life’s complexities can be magnified in school. Pressures to conform to the norm, pass exams well, be socially accepted and have a strong social media following are just a few of the difficulties that children and young people face every day.

Government figures suggest that close to one in five young peoplehave experienced a “common mental disorder”, such as depression or anxiety, in the past week. What’s more, young people are less likely to recover from mental health issues if they are from a deprived area, or have a disability.

The UK government’s plans (outlined in its 2017 green paper) would see mental health teams provide extra support in schools, and introduce waiting time targets.But according to a joint report by the Education and Health and Social Care Committees, the government’s strategy won’t address the complexities of young people’s mental health issues, while its gradual roll out (to reach a quarter of the country by 2022-23) could leave hundreds of thousands unable to benefit from the proposals.

 The government’s focus on mental health presents an opportunity to involve children and young people in developing online mental health resources, accessed through social mediaand apps, to move mental health support out of the clinic, into everyday life. With so many young people requiring extra support – whether that’s special education or mental health services – it’s high time for educational psychologists to take on a bigger role in schools.

Most of the time, a single educational psychologist visits as many as 15 schools in their local authority area. The government workforce survey 2014indicated that 81% of local authorities in England and Wales had a greater demand for educational psychology services than they could currently provide. In some areas individual schools make the decision to allocate funds towards employing psychologists or psychotherapists but, in the current volatile funding climate, often on a very ad hoc basis. This often undermines continuity of care.

Rather than the current model of one psychologist to many, many schools, it would be better to move towards a system in which a school or a small group of schools share professional mental health workers, including psychologists and psychotherapists. By reallocating funding in this way, the government would be ensuring front line child mental health services are available for those in need, which could in turn reduce the need for more serious psychiatric interventions.

The government’s green paper is timely. But it remains focused on identifying mental health needs, rather than tackling the underlying social causessuch as the social, economic, and physical environments where people live. On this view, it’s the child that needs to change. But perhaps it’s time for all members of society to take collective responsibility for promoting positive mental health and emotional well-being; it does, after all, take a village to raise a child.

A key message in an effective mental health education programme is that “it’s okay to feel down”. Being mentally healthy isn’t just about feeling happy, it’s also the ability to notice changes in our own moods and to accept those ups and downs as natural and not something to be feared.

Another challenge is how to engage young people, particularly happy young people, in mental health education. Schools and teachers may also be concerned that the implementation of new programmes for social and emotional learning will add to already large workloads. This points to a need for a coordinated strategy at regional and national levels with appropriate funding attached.

School leaders warn that funding for professional mental health services in schools has “plummeted”.

“There are not enough resources there already,” said Paul Whiteman general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

“Teachers aren’t the ones who should be treating mental health. We should leave that to the experts in that field.”

Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds said: “If the government is serious about improving children’s mental health services it needs to guarantee increased long term funding and place more emphasis on preventing mental health problems from developing.”