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Under pressure - mental health at school

‘Issues of potential teen angst like eating disorders and cyberbullying just don’t happen at this school.’ ‘I honestly don’t think pupils at our school feel under undue pressure.’ ‘I’ve never known of a young person at this school to self-harm.’

Many schools we visit fail to grasp the true picture of mental health problems facing young people today. Indeed, barely a week goes by without another study evidencing the very real pressures that today’s youth are under.

‘Almost two-thirds of pupils say they would not mind if social media had never been invented’, found one report recently. ‘One in four girls hit depression by the time they hit 14,’ reports another. ‘Half of young people have so many emotional problems they cannot focus at school.’ And so on.

It was, then, with open arms that we welcomed the recent report from the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which recommends that everyone who works in a school should be trained in mental health. ‘Urgent’ changes are needed, reports SAMH, whose survey found that only a third of school staff think their school responds effectively to pupils experiencing mental health problems.

In fact, we would suggest casting the net wider still. Mental health needs to be central not just to schools, but to colleges and universities if we are to truly prepare our young people for the world of adulthood and work. As SAMH recommends, everyone including janitors and catering staff should be trained to recognise alarm bells and how to respond.

‘We’re currently facing a mental health crisis in our classrooms, with three children in every classroom estimated to have a diagnosable mental health problem, and many more who go through difficult times,’ Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, told The Good Schools Guide this week. ‘Schools shouldn't be expected to the job of specialist mental health services, but they can play a huge role in building resilience in young people as well as intervening quickly when problems do arise.’

Many of the teachers YoungMinds work with say that they haven’t had enough training on mental health. ‘So we think that mental health and wellbeing should become a core part of initial teacher training and continuous professional development,’ says Madders, who adds that in the meantime they’ve created a 360 Schools Community, a free resource to help teachers across the UK find information about mental health to use in the classroom (link to youngminds.org.uk/360schoolscommunity).

There is some hope. Last year, the government published a framework of content for initial teacher training, including detail on how courses should cover learning on pupils’ emotional development and mental health. This framework will be incorporated into initial teacher training over the next two years.

The government is also planning a mental health-specific strand within the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund. ‘This approach is likely to see an increased number of teachers learn about child mental health as part of their initial teacher training, although there is no requirement that they do so,’ points out a spokesperson from the NSPCC.

As it is, school-based mental health support is delivered largely by staff with no specialist mental health training (67 per cent in primary school and 49 per cent in secondary schools), points out NSPCC – ‘and the majority of programmes follow a locally devised model rather than one which has been shown to be effective at the national or international level.’

The absence of a minimum standard, concludes the charity, opens to the door to vast asymmetries in quality.  ‘And poor-quality support can be worse than no support at all. We would like to see a minimum standard implemented to ensure that all young people who need help with mental health in school are receiving good quality support.’

Given that a government commissioned review recently found that around 300,000 people with mental health problems lose their jobs ever year (that’s 50 per cent higher than those who are forced to stop working as a result of physical health conditions), this is more urgent than ever.

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