Teachers are being urged to refer pupils to new £79 million mental health support teams being implemented across 3,000 schools by NHS England.
More than a million children will be given access to mental health support in school as the NHS expands its services to help young people cope with the significant disruption caused by the pandemic.
Teams of experts are offering support to children experiencing anxiety and depression in a bid to prevent problems escalating into serious mental health issues that continue into adulthood.
NHS England says approximately 400 mental health support teams will be up and running across 3,000 schools in England and they will offer support to almost three million pupils by 2023.
The £79 million government funding for children’s mental health services, confirmed in March, is being used to accelerate the rollout of mental health support teams in schools.
The funding is part of a £500 million package for mental health services across the board in England, which was unveiled in November as part of measures to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
‘This shouldn’t be a sticking plaster’
Andy Mellor, national wellbeing director for Schools Advisory Service and strategic lead for the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for mental health in schools, told Tes it was important that this money shouldn’t be used as a sticking plaster but used to fundamentally change things.
The former NAHT president said: “What we have historically seen is to wait for children to fall over before something is done and it has all been very reactive.
“Anyone who works in a school will tell you they know of many children who are struggling with their mental health.
“But the threshold for Camhs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is now so high that there are large numbers of children who are struggling without support.
“This was the case even before the pandemic so it will be even worse now.”
He said money invested into mental health in schools needed to be used to “go back upstream” and make changes to the way things are done in schools to improve wellbeing and mental health.
“We know that poor wellbeing leads to poor academic outcomes and that pupils who live in poverty are going to have poorer mental health and wellbeing.” he said.
“In educational terms, we need to address these barriers to learning and this money needs to be invested with a proper plan to change the way we do things.
“It can’t and should not be used as a sticking plaster. It should be about making sure school staff have all the information and resources they need to build a whole wellbeing culture in their schools.
“It is not about throwing money at things but bringing about fundamental change in our education system.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We’re very pleased to see the roll-out of mental health support teams to support the work that schools already do in providing this vital help to children and young people.
“The focus on this provision is extremely important, but there is also work to do in better understanding and tackling the causes of poor mental health.
“In particular, we are concerned about the impact of child poverty on many young people and how this affects their wellbeing and ability to learn.
“The government has to look harder at how it can better support struggling families and address the scourge of child poverty.
“This really should be possible in a relatively wealthy 21st century nation like our own.”
1 in 6 children may struggle with mental health
Referrals to the mental health support teams – which offer children one-to-one and group therapy sessions, as well as training sessions for parents and workshops for school staff – can be made by teachers or GPs.
A study from NHS Digital shows that one in six children in England aged five to 16 reported having a probable mental health disorder in 2020, up from one in nine in 2017.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, said: “Coronavirus has taken its toll on us all, not least children who have been stuck at home unable to see their friends and without the routine of school life.
“So it’s an urgent necessity to expand services as we are doing after what will have been for many a year of turmoil.
“Increasing investment in mental health services, particularly for children and young people, is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan but we are now going even further and faster, because offering help and support early, before problems get worse, can sometimes prevent problems persisting into adulthood.”
There are currently 183 mental health support teams which are operational and ready to support more than a million school pupils in England.
The first 59 mental health support teams began work last March, but they had to swiftly adapt to provide help during lockdown.
In Essex, teams extended support to parents and carers confronted with home schooling as well as remote working, furlough or redundancy, using an online “befriending service”.
Parents were offered one-to-one therapy sessions, online parenting courses and given a buddy so they could have a support network to share advice with.
Meanwhile in Kent, teams provided 20-minute telephone counselling sessions for parents struggling with the competing demands of life under lockdown.
Claire Murdoch, mental health director for NHS England, said: “Children have had their normal routines turned upside down during the pandemic whether it be curbs on their social life, school or their hobbies, and so it is only right that the NHS accelerates its mental health support for young people.
“As children have returned to the classroom, dedicated NHS mental health support teams will be in place at 3,000 schools across the country ready to listen to any anxieties they may have and I would urge everyone whether you’re a teacher, parent or child to access this help before any issues escalate.”