‘Child mental health crisis must be our top priority’

1st April 2016 at 00:00
Numbers of pupils needing additional support because of mental health issues doubles

The number of Scottish school pupils needing additional support for learning because of a mental health problem has doubled in four years, shocking new statistics reveal.

The disclosure is made in a new report painting a bleak picture of child mental health, which has prompted children’s services to call on the government to make the issue its “top priority”.

Research shows that there were 2,334 pupils requiring additional support for learning because of a mental health problem in 2015 – more than double the 1,086 recorded in 2011 (see graphic, above).

The report reveals that pupils with mental health issues who need additional support are almost 10 times more likely to be excluded than pupils with no special needs.

They are also more than twice as likely to be excluded as additional support needs (ASN) pupils overall.

The attainment and school attendance of these pupils are also worse than for other ASN pupils.

And the problem continues beyond school: a “significantly greater” proportion of school leavers with mental health problems are unemployed but not looking for work or training, the figures show.

The alarming statistics appear in an annual government progress report on additional support for learning legislation, which this year focuses on mental health in schools (bit.ly/MentalHealthPupils). At their most severe, the report says, mental health problems, for example, severe anxiety, can “significantly interfere with cognitive, emotional and social abilities”.

But it shows that some local authorities identified few pupils with ASN principally relating to mental health – in Angus and the Western Isles, there were officially no such pupils in 2015.

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “Rising mental health issues amongst youngsters are a serious concern, and local authorities need to consider carefully whether support in this area is as good as it could be.”

‘Spending cuts’

Mr Duncan, a guidance teacher, added: “There is wide evidence that spending on young people’s mental health is decreasing as a result of budget pressures. This will have a serious impact on the quality of youngsters’ lives and the lives of those who teach and care for them.”

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition said that the children’s mental health “crisis” was “the key priority [for the government elected next month]”.

The group fears that unless action is taken there will be “inevitable negative consequences” for children’s education. Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said: “We believe that the impact that mental health difficulties have on children’s education, and the inadequate levels of child and adolescent mental health provision, have reached a critical point in Scotland.”

The charity has seen an increase in calls to Enquire, the additional support for learning advice service that it manages.

Last year, it fielded a growing number of calls from parents whose children were struggling in education because of a mental health condition, with some having been out of school for “a significant length of time”.

Enquire manager Sally Cavers said that a whole-school approach should be taken to help pupils with mental health problems: “It’s not just about pastoral care or guidance responsibility, it’s everybody looking out for every pupil’s wellbeing.”

This includes other pupils, who are alert to the sort of tell-tale signs that teachers might easily miss, Ms Cavers said. Schools needed to take time to spell out to children “what you do if you’re worried about your friends”, she added.

“Although you think that would be obvious, it quite often isn’t”, Ms Cavers said.

Writing in TESS this week, Nikki Byrne, a peer support worker for the Penumbra Fife Self-Harm Project, highlights a need to establish better support for teachers dealing with pupils’ mental health (see pages 16-17).

Caitlin-Jay Wyllie-Quinn, 19, a volunteer for See Me, an organisation that campaigns against mental health discrimination, said that the burden should not be left with individual teachers in isolation: “Just because an issue isn’t in your classroom, doesn’t mean that you don’t have a duty of care.”

The Scottish government has said that mental health is “an area of priority for education and, particularly, our activity to close the attainment gap”.

It has announced an extra £150 million for mental health over five years, and said it was committed to early intervention with children through, for example, the Daily Mile initiative and policies to increase PE in schools.


‘My son flourished with specialist help’

My son Kieran spent the majority of his early school years at home as he was unable to concentrate and prone to violent outbursts. I was told this was a result of separation anxiety, as I worked part-time.

It wasn’t until he changed schools at 7 that we had a breakthrough. His new headmistress recognised that there was a problem and we finally secured a medical diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), as well as identifying social and emotional difficulties. Despite him being prescribed medication, Kieran’s behavioural problems continued. He could not deal with a traditional classroom and had to be physically restrained daily. He invariably spent his days in the headmistress’ office or at home with me.

He was turned down by two other schools – they took one look at his behavioural record. Aged 10, we got him accepted into Falkland House School in Fife, which specialises in educating boys with additional support needs.

Within weeks, we saw a marked improvement. He had basically missed six years of schooling, and could barely write his name. He flourished in the small and calming classroom setting.

Kieran is now in fourth year and has achieved straight Bs in his prelims. Previously, he was unable to interact with other children; he now takes part in after-school activities and, with classmates, an outreach programme in the holidays. I can’t believe he is the same boy as a few years ago.

Pamela Cruden, parent

The right support

Education Scotland school inspectors have picked out examples of how to support pupils’ mental health:

Children preparing to move up to St Luke’s High School in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, receive extra help as early as P6 if they have mental health difficulties, spending time in the school, meeting key staff and taking part in a summer transition programme.

Pupils at Kirkhill Primary School in Newton Mearns, also in East Renfrewshire, support peers with mental health needs if they are anxious, angry or clashing with another child. One P6 child said: “I used to get anxious all the time but now I feel confident and really enjoy being at school.”

S6s at St Stephen’s and Port Glasgow high schools, both in Inverclyde, ran workshops for younger pupils to highlight issues affecting mental health, such as cyberbullying and gender stereotypes.

Pupils at Lochside Primary School in Montrose, Angus, share concerns in a “worry box”. The school has also run meditation exercises, which led one P4 to say: “We just imagined that we were throwing pebbles in a river and that was like throwing away any worries.”

A nationwide problem

149: the number of pupils excluded per 1,000 pupils who have ASN (additional support needs) because of mental health problems

90.5 per cent: the school attendance rate for pupils with mental health problems (compared with 91.8 per cent for all ASN pupils and 94.2 per cent for non-ASN pupils)

25.6 per cent: the proportion of school leavers with mental health problems who have one or more qualifications at Higher or equivalent (compared with 30.2 per cent for all ASN leavers and 64.8 per cent for non-ASN leavers)

10.2 per cent: the proportion of school leavers with mental health problems who are unemployed and not looking for work or training (ASN leavers overall – 3 per cent – and non-ASN leavers – 0.8 per cent)

0: the number of pupils in Angus and the Western Isles in 2015 who were identified as having ASN principally relating to mental health (the highest figure from local authorities was 314 in Aberdeenshire, which neighbours Angus)

One in 10: the proportion of children and young people with a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Source: Supporting Children’s Learning, the Scottish government, bit.ly/MentalHealthPupils

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