Mental health 'failure'

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Schools are not doing enough to combat the increasing mental health problems facing young people, say researchers.

A team from Aberdeen University warns that, if schools do not become truly health-promoting, teachers' health will suffer as well as that of their pupils.

The pound;100,000 study, funded by the Scottish Executive, says efforts to deal with the problem amount to no more than "random experimentation"

across the country.

And, its report adds, even the patchy measures being adopted are not being evaluated in ways that would reveal best practice.

"There is little evidence of authorities or schools able or prepared to undertake the radical review of curriculum or pedagogic method that might be required to deliver the truly health-promoting school," the report states. "There is also little evidence of reluctant teachers or headteachers being challenged and called to account for the mental well-being of pupils in their charge."

Janet Shucksmith, who led the project, said: "Perhaps we need someone to do for mental health what Jamie Oliver has tried to do for kids' eating habits at school."

She warned that "if we don't want problems to stack up into later life, we have to start spotting young people's distress at an early age and acting to remedy it".

One in four young people is estimated to suffer from poor mental health, with problems such as self-harming and depression becoming increasingly common. Kate Philip, one of the researchers, said schools should not worry about being expected to tackle these problems on their own. Outside specialists were on hand to help, but schools themselves would benefit from having staff trained "to develop a sympathetic ear to children's troubles and to act robustly to support them".

The report, Investigating the Links between Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools, noted that schools have their own problems in dealing with pupils'

needs.

"Children and young people want to be recognised and responded to as individuals, but there is a tension between this and the structure of schools, particularly secondary schools, in which pupils are organised in terms of classes and subjects and everyone is subordinate to the needs of the timetable," say the authors.

Teachers saw their role in terms of behaviour control which meant that the problems that came to the attention of the school tended to be those which disrupted learning. "Withdrawn behaviours may be overlooked when they do not interfere with teaching," the report said.

Schools also faced other pressures and tensions in finding time and space to support troubled or troubling youngsters, the study found, especially since they were being constantly urged to drive up attainment. The two things were not incompatible, but there was little "wriggle room" for schools to take on both roles.

Yet, according to Jenny Spratt, another member of the research team, it is in teachers' own interests to do so. She cited a staged intervention initiative in Aberdeenshire, in which teachers can call in specially-trained colleagues to tackle behavioural problems. Although primarily intended to enhance the well-being of pupils, she said, "teachers also reported a very positive effect on their own well-being".

In turn, the report commented, "building teachers' morale and confidence has clear knock-on benefits for children's welfare."

The researchers found that schools which did not deal successfully with supporting pupils tended to be those which had not forged strong links with their local communities and did not appreciate the daily problems of pupils and their families.

The report said the relationship between teachers and pupils was a critical factor. But, it warned, teachers and schools had to accept that the way they operated could be part of the problem.

In response, the Scottish Executive said it would be producing a good practice guide for schools on promoting emotional health and well-being in schools later this year. Its health-promoting schools unit was also working towards this end.

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