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Let’s talk about mental health

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I've heard rather a lot about mental health recently. I went along to the Sunday Times Festival of Education where the author Andrew Solomon talked about his interviews with an American woman whose schizophrenia was so devastating that she could hear her neck muscles sizzling and feel them burning. She was completely convinced that she was possessed by a demon.

Schizophrenia afflicts only a tiny minority, and hers was an extreme case. But it took her years to find help and to understand there was a name for what she was experiencing. And the emotional difficulties she experienced at school went unnoticed.

Here in England, it seems that schools are paying more attention to their pupils’ state of mind.

As a researcher for our school leader service, specialising in pupil wellbeing, I’m seeing more questions from our members on supporting pupils under extreme stress. For example, we’ve been asked how a school can support a transgender pupil and how to help pupils with ‘severe’ mental health problems. And that’s not all: 65% of respondents to our recent survey of school leaders about mental health were concerned about depression among pupils in their school. Over half were concerned about self-harm, and four in ten about eating disorders among their pupils. Speaking at the festival, Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist specialising in working with children, explained that mental health problems appear to be growing most quickly among children of wealthy families who attend independent schools: anxiety levels are increasing because of the extreme pressure on these young people to succeed.

So when I read that two-thirds of councils in England have cut spending on child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) since 2010, I’m uneasy. I’ve written articles for school leaders on how schools can make referrals to CAMHS, but am left afraid that I’m sending them up the garden path. And while the government guidance released this month will help teachers to distinguish challenging behaviour from problems with mental health, I don’t feel reassured.

Pupil wellbeing should certainly be a core concern of schools. But work in schools cannot compensate for sound, professional support when problems go beyond the self-esteem issues that can be successfully addressed in the classroom. This professional support seems to be getting harder to come by. Our survey found that almost a quarter of those who’d made a referral to CAMHS had to wait three to six months for this to be followed up, and nearly 10% had to wait even longer. So we’re pushing schools to support pupils’ mental health, but I’m left wondering who is supporting the schools. Who can teachers turn to with confidence when their pupils need help?

I’m worried we’re at risk of creating an emergency service approach, where cases are only addressed at crisis point. This won’t save money in the long term, and it could also leave children feeling isolated and anxious for longer. Hardly the best state of mind for learning.

Of course, not every child needs emotional support beyond the pastoral care normally offered by families and schools. As former headteacher Charlie Taylor reminded his audience at the Sunday Times festival, we shouldn’t assume that every child has poor mental health. But with school leaders so worried, and some schools offering unprecedented levels of psychological support, is it time for a national strategy?

I’m thinking of the kind of approach we’re seeing for another pressing problem – childhood obesity. We’re seeing a more co-ordinated approach to tackle this, with central funding to support the school food plan and the introduction of universal infant free school meals from this September. We’ll need research to develop a similar approach to mental health.

While we measure the weight and height of children in schools each year, the last set of national statistics on mental health of children and young people was produced back in 2004. The physical signs of good health are easier to measure, but I’d also like to see the mental health of young people being prioritised. And with more of a focus on emotional wellbeing in schools, perhaps we’ll see fewer young people struggling alone with the kind of unimaginable suffering I heard about from Andrew Solomon.

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