School pressures 'making pupils suicidal’

Almost half of secondary staff say pupils have been left suicidal because of the stress they are under, according to a union survey

Dave Speck

Dave Speck

Child and adolescent mental health services are at breaking point, writes Ed Dorrell

A "shocking rise" in mental health problems among schoolchildren has been revealed by figures released today.

In a survey carried out by the NEU teaching union, virtually half of secondary staff (49 per cent) who were questioned said school pressures had led to pupils feeling suicidal, with 81 per cent saying the same pressures were leading pupils to self-harm.

A total of 730 education staff working in early years, primary, secondary, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges were questioned for the research, and 45 per cent reported pupils having eating disorders and 48 per cent said pupils were having panic attacks.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It is shocking that so many children are suffering from mental health issues to the point of contemplating suicide or self-harming. The government must bear some responsibility for the huge amount of stress so many children are under, and for the hollowing out of crucial local support services. This has placed an unacceptable strain on education professionals, who have to pick up with the pieces when these vulnerable children hit crisis.

“The constant pressure for pupils to reach impossible standards, and the constant tinkering with the curriculum, leaves them feeling demoralised and disillusioned by education. This is no way to encourage more children to do well at school or college.

Lack of mental health services

“The government must also bear responsibility for the problems schools and colleges have accessing services, such as Camhs [child and adolescent mental health services], which have been hit by funding cuts. The proposals in the government’s mental health Green Paper are too little too late to have a meaningful impact on the current situation.”

The survey found that mental health issues were on the rise, with almost seven in 10 (68 per cent) of respondents saying they believed their school or college was having to deal with more pupil mental health issues than five years ago, and a third (34 per cent) saying they were dealing with significantly more than one year ago.

One secondary school teacher from West Sussex said: “I have several students who were high achievers at GCSE and who are virtually unable to sit in a lesson and concentrate due to severe stress. I have at least one student who has attempted suicide and others with a variety of mental health issues.”

A total of 82 per cent of respondents said tests and exams had the biggest impact on the mental health of pupils.

More than two-thirds – 67 per cent – said the threat to students' wellbeing was due to pressure from schools to do well; half said it was due to a narrowing of the curriculum, and 48 per cent said it was due to the pressure students put on themselves to do well academically.

One teacher from Sussex said: “There is a massive conflict between the offering up of mental health support and the ongoing drive towards more testing at every level at school. Students' self-esteem is inevitably wrapped up with their perceived and actual performance. There is an irony in 'helping' students with mental health issues when the present education system is triggering much ill health.”

Lack of funding was cited by respondents as the main barrier to supporting pupils with mental health conditions in their school or college (77 per cent of respondents).

When questioned about access to support services, such as Camhs, 65 per cent said their school or college found it more difficult to access them compared with a year ago.

More than half (54 per cent) said they believe funding to provide support for pupils’ mental health was inadequate.

A teacher from Hertfordshire said: “We have seen a significant increase in mental health issues with a decrease in support and funding. School is at breaking point and we cannot provide the level of support we want to as we have so much need but not enough staff or money to pay and train additional staff to support these very vulnerable children.”

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