Call for mental-health aid in school

25th June 1999 at 01:00
The drive to raise standards may be taking its toll on pupils as one in five suffers from anxiety or worse. Chris Bunting reports

Campaigners want every school to employ a mental-health co-ordinator amid growing concern about widespread psychological and psychiatric problems among pupils.

A Mental Health Foundation report says that one in five young people is suffering from disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychosis.

It warns that "the potentially negative impact of a narrowly-focused academic definition of raising standards can be seen in recent research showing increased pupil distress in primary school and of new pressures in secondary school".

Director June McKerrow says that child and adolescent mental-health services are "patchy, under-funded and plagued by a lack of co-ordination".

Ms McKerrow said: "The Government, professionals and media seem obsessed with children's academic achievements and physical well-being.

"Our study shows that the nation's children, the country's most important resource, are failing to thrive emotionally."

The Bright Futures report - based on a two-year inquiry by 20 specialists - recommends that league tables should give an indication of a school's commitment to promoting pupils' mental health.

The specialists also suggest tighter scrutiny of mental-health policies by the Office for Standards in Education and the appointment of mental-health co-ordinators.

Its authors also call for peer support schemes for pupils and out-of-school activities to foster children's emotional and social skills. Other sections demand better support for children in care from local authorities and wholesale reforms to the health service.

Pressure to improve mental-health services for young people has mounted following health minister John Hutton's criticism of the lack of inter-agency co-operation and patchy local authority funding. The Government has pledged pound;84 million over the next three years to aid reform.

Peter Wilson, director of the children's mental-health charity Young Minds and one of the members of the Bright Futures inquiry committee, supported most of its recommendations but said the call for mental-health co-ordinators was a step too far.

He said: "Teachers are crucial and their training is at the heart of this. Teachers do not have enough background in child development in their training. This is the first step."

Professor Hilton Davis at Guy's Hospital, London, underlined the need for change. In inner-city areas, mental-health disorders were even higher, affecting about a quarter of pupils. Specialist services estimated that they saw only 10 to 20 per cent of children in need.

Professor Davis has led a radical rethink of services in the London boroughs of Lewisham and Southwark through involving teachers, GPs and parents.

He this could be a unique opportunity to improve a Cinderella service now that the Government was showing an interest.

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY MINDS

Dr Geoffrey Baruch, director of the Brandon Centre for young people in London, is a leading advocate of school-based mental-health services. He warns there are pitfalls as well as benefits to providing psychotherapy on-site.

Pitfalls

* Treatment may become confused with discipline. A pupil could be coerced into treatment by teachers trying to control hisher behaviour.

* There is a risk of teachers and other pupils finding out about treatment and undermining confidentiality.

* Parents might be sidelined by school-based treatment.

Benefits

* School is perhaps the most important public arena where psychological problems present themselves.

* Teachers and school nurses are highly skilled at identifying problems.

* Therapy is normalised.

* School is often more accessible than a mental health centre.

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