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The mental health pressures on teachers and pupils are ‘unsustainable’

Cuts to local services and school budgets have resulted in a mental health crisis among today’s teenagers – but teachers are, in many cases, powerless to help

Teachers and pupils mental health is growing unsustainable

Our mental health may only be a school’s problem for seven years, but it is our problem for ever.” So wrote a very articulate 17-year-old student this week about the pressures young people are facing (bit.ly/TeenOnMentalHealth).

By the age of 11, the writer said, at least seven friends had experienced some form of mental health problem and in the past six years, eight friends had been hospitalised, forcing them to leave school.

They were perhaps the lucky ones. A headteacher who contacted me following the article revealed that, in the past two months, three of their Year 11 pupils had made attempts to take their own lives. Each one, however, was back at school the next day. There was no support for these children from the hospital or the community. The only people supporting them were the school team.

That is where we are. This is the human cost of constant cuts to both school budgets and mental health funding. Real-terms spending on children’s mental health services has been reduced by 60 per cent of local authorities in England, according to a study by the Children’s Commissioner (bit.ly/ChildMHCuts).

In the community, there is little or no support; in schools, there is no money for specialist services or school nurses. “The capacity to meet a rising tide of pastoral and wellbeing challenges on behalf of students and families is at breaking point,” says Jules White, headteacher and founder of the grassroots campaign WorthLess?.

Tackling mental health issues

The mental health difficulties of today’s teenagers are well documented, but it may be less to do with number who experience issues increasing and more to do with young people being more willing to admit they have problems. What we get therefore is a perfect storm of increasing numbers of students seeking help at a time of diminishing support being available for them in the NHS and elsewhere.

For the 17-year-old writer, it was school that received their opprobrium, blaming heads for not prioritising mental health over grades, for not thinking of pupil wellbeing instead of their league table position. That’s not so hard to understand: school is where students feel safe and where they expect to get support. They know little of the cuts to funding and the accountability pressures schools are under.

But there is only so much support overstretched school staff can give them. And this is a specialist area: they cannot possibly help treat young people who are so distressed that they are suicidal.

“It’s unsustainable,” as the headteacher contacting me said. No one can operate long term under that kind of emotional pressure. It’s unsustainable for the staff and it’s also unsustainable for the entire school system.

Teaching is already under strain. Last year, 3,750 teachers out of every 100,000 reported experiencing work-related illness, and 40 per cent of those who trained to become teachers don’t last beyond five years in the classroom (bit.ly/TeacherMHVideo).

We need teachers to be empathetic to pupils’ needs, but when those needs are running out of control because of the effects of poverty and family breakdown, it brings a level of stress all of its own. Who is supporting our teachers to support those in their care?

The government is still struggling to recruit teachers into the system, despite all its shiny, high-profile, costly campaigns. The answer, however, isn’t in appealing to career-changers or graduates. The answer is in appealing to those in the classroom today. If we want young people to see teaching as a successful potential career, there’s no better way than for those standing in front of them to show them the way. If the government put some of its cash and effort into looking after them, we’d be halfway there. After all, the best advert for teaching is a happy teacher.

Ann Mroz is digital publishing director and editor at Tes. She tweets @AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 12 April 2019 issue under the headline “How can teachers support pupils when they, too, receive no help?”