Need to know: Pupil mental health

This week, MPs will meet to hear evidence from experts about how to transform young people's mental health. Here's your essential briefing on an issue that is rising rapidly up the education and political agenda

Adi Bloom

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On Tuesday, MPs will hear testimony on the subject of transforming children and young people’s mental health, from a panel including children’s commissioner Anne Longfield; Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT; and Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the children and young people’s mental health coalition.

The hearing is further evidence that pupils' mental health has become a matter of concern for everyone with an interest in education, from the school classrooms to the corridors of Westminster.

But why is everyone suddenly talking about young people’s mental health?  

Because increasing numbers of children and teenagers appear to be suffering from mental health problems. Telephone helpline Childline recently revealed that 22 per cent of almost 300,000 young people whom it counselled in 2016-17 were primarily concerned about their mental and emotional health – an almost threefold increase from the 8 per cent of calls the previous year.

And around exam time every year, polls reveal that pupils struggle to cope with the pressure. Last year, a survey of 1,000 16- and 17-year-olds showed that more than half had been reduced to tears, because they were “stressed out” by exams. Eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety and depression are affecting increasing numbers of pupils. More than 22,400 of the pupils who contacted Childline last year said that they had been contemplating suicide.

Isn't this just because pupils are now more prepared to talk about their problems?

Partly. Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon points out that typically – and stereotypically – British culture has not encouraged us to talk about our feelings. This does not, however, mean that the feelings have not always been there: just because people did not talk about mental health problems in the past, it did not mean that they were not suffering from them.

But there is also a general consensus that pupils are suffering from greater pressures than previous generations.

Such as?

Exams. From phonic checks to A levels, this generation spends its school career running a seemingly endless gamut of high-stakes tests. In a Tes and Mumsnet survey last year, 43 per cent of parents said that their children were worrying about the future. And the fact that, while the stakes remain high, the exams themselves are continually changing has not helped. Sixty-two per cent of parents surveyed said that the change from A*-G grades at GCSE to the numerical grades 1-9 had added to their children’s stress levels.

Anything else?

Yes. Exams are far from the only challenge that today’s pupils face. The internet, while broadening young people’s horizons in many ways, has also opened up a new world of stress and anxiety. Social media – with its endless opportunities for "likes" – means that pupils are feeling the pressure to be popular even once they have left school for the day. Essentially, social media exists to allow people to show off their best-possible selves; for unhappy teenagers, it merely hammers home how inadequate their own lives are. And we have not even started on the fact that the internet facilitates bullying, allowing the bullies anonymity. And it is a haven for potential paedophiles – which is something else for pupils to worry about, regardless of whether or not they encounter an actual paedophile.

That does sound a lot for pupils to be dealing with. What is the government doing about it?

In December last year, the government published a Green Paper, outlining its plans to increase funding and provision for young people’s mental health. The paper’s proposals included an additional £300 million of funding over the next five years. Of this, £95 million will be set aside to fund senior mental health leaders, who will coordinate school-based support for mental ill health. And £215 million will be used to set up new mental health support teams, whose role will be to improve links between schools and the NHS. The Department for Education has suggested that members of these teams could also be trained to offer cognitive behavioural therapy in the classroom.

Is anything else happening in schools?

The government has also pledged £200,000 in order to provide every secondary school with a member of staff trained in mental health first aid. The funding will be used to train 3,000 teachers and teaching assistants over three years. There are also plans to extend the programme to primary schools at a later date. Staff will receive practical advice on how to deal with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm, as well as how and where to refer those pupils in need of professional help.

Meanwhile, schools are offering a range of interventions, from happiness lessons to mindfulness and meditation sessions, though the effectiveness of these is varied, and their scientific basis can be negligible.

And what happens to those pupils who need something more than an hour of focusing on their breath?

Therein lies the rub. Not enough, according to children’s commissioner Anne Longfield. Ms Longfield’s office estimates that as few as a quarter or a fifth of children with mental health problems received the help they needed last year. Funding cuts to child and adolescent mental-health services (Camhs) mean that, in some areas, pupils with severe mental health needs can wait as long as 18 months for an appointment. As Tes has reported, some pupils are resorting to suicide attempts, in a desperate attempt to ensure that they are seen by Camhs professionals.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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