Last Thursday, a report was catapulted into the Land of Media "revealing" that half of schools struggle to access adequate mental health support.
I've put the word revealing in inverted commas because this "news" wouldn’t have come as any surprise to anyone who works in the education sector. If anything, I was a little surprised that the proportion of flailing schools wasn’t higher.
Yet, for your average person, someone who perhaps doesn’t have children and doesn’t interact regularly within a school environment, this would have provided a counterpoint to the prime minister’s vague platitudes around "stigma" and reassurances that mental health is a "priority" under her watch.
At 5.45pm on Thursday I was on my way to Channel 4 News, having tweeted about my forthcoming appearance, scheduled for 7.25pm. Channel 4’s researcher and I had discussed my angle on the topic, which was this:
- The growing number of mental health issues among young people is, in no small part, a Conservative government-made crisis. Allowing Michael Gove to run roughshod over the education system, merrily squeezing all the things that we know benefit mental wellbeing (sport, art, music, PSHE) out of the curriculum by defunding and deprioritising them, as well as increasing testing, has led to a huge surge in anxiety amongst pupils and teachers alike. Furthermore, there is a direct, statistical link between poor mental health and povert,y and the Tories have presided over the formation of the biggest gap between rich and poor in generations.
- Theresa May’s recent announcement on mental health proposed that all schools should be offered mental health first-aid training. As an instructor for Mental Health First Aid England, I know precisely what this (excellent) course involves. Delegates are taught to detect early symptoms of mental illness and signpost to appropriate further support and services. If these services do not exist, the entire system falls apart. Therefore, in the context of the £58-80 million (depending on which paper you read) cuts to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) since 2010, Ms May’s plans appear at best misguided and at worst an attempt to garner positive publicity without having to make the necessary large gestures which might begin to genuinely tackle the issue.
At 6.30pm, as I was on my way to the studio, some breaking news regarding historical abuse claims in Iraq pushed the mental health feature off Channel 4's schedule, so my taxi had to turn around and take me back home.
In the intervening 45 minutes I’d been inundated with tweets from people who are living and breathing the consequences of residing in a country where the average local authority spends just 1 per cent of its health budget on mental health, despite one in three GP appointments being for a mental health issue.
I heard from parents whose children had been put on six-month waiting lists to receive care for depression (the children were often considered "low risk" because they hadn’t attempted suicide).
I heard from young people who had received a relatively swift (within two weeks) initial "assessment" but had been hanging on interminably since for the paltry six-week course of CBT they desperately hoped would cure their severe anxiety.
I heard from CAMHS workers who said that every day they were screamed at and scapegoated, despite having no control over the brutal cuts their services had faced and the ever higher diagnostic criteria they had been forced to use as a consequence.
Most of all, I heard from teachers.
Teachers fearful of the stigma
Of course, I was contacted by teachers who are dealing with daily incidents of self-harm and panic attacks without any kind of formal training, but there were also those who spoke about their own mental ill health and the stigma surrounding being perceived as unable to "cope".
It is in this context that the word "stigma", so often flung around by politicians in an attempt to appear empathetic, becomes really meaningful.
Teachers told me that they couldn’t admit to their leadership teams that their stress levels had become unbearable, that they were overworked, overstretched, underpaid, undervalued and ready to snap.
This is true, to an extent, of any profession, but the guilt and shame that surrounds caring vocations like nursing and teaching makes stigma all the more potent.
Stress among teachers will inevitably cascade downwards towards pupils, however hard they might try to prevent this.
If our government is truly as serious as it claims to be about tackling this issue, it urgently needs to address ways to make teaching a job where support is available when the needs of the pupil extend beyond the realms of teachers’ expertise, where hours and paperwork are reasonable, where the nuances of the job (beyond league tables and exam results) are recognised and, above all, where there is time for self-care.
Natasha Devon is the founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team and former UK government mental health champion for schools. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon
For more columns by Natasha, visit her back-catalogue of articles