“Sometimes I feel sad and have lots of worries. I want teachers to understand that when I feel sad it’s hard to learn.” This is a quote from a young person from Children in Scotland’s Leaders of Learning project.
The devastating impact that mental health difficulties can have on children’s education and the inadequate levels of child and adolescent mental health provision are deeply troubling.
Last year Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning, reported an increase in calls from worried parents whose children were struggling to make the most of their education because of a mental health condition.
Callers spoke about the difficulties that schools were experiencing in being able to adequately support their child. Attendance issues that can result from this were frequently cited. Several said that their child had been out of school for a significant length of time and the families did not know how they were going to persuade them to go back.
This puts a huge emotional and financial strain on parents, who find it difficult to juggle work and care for their child. The effect that inadequate support has on the child’s wellbeing now, and on their future life chances, is even more worrying. We know that many mental health problems established in childhood will persist into adult life.
The report Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain 2004 found that one in 10 children will have a diagnosable mental health condition during their school life. If you include those experiencing “sub-clinical” conditions – low mood, stress or anxiety – the numbers will be much higher.
It can feel like an overwhelming challenge for schools to deal with. Teachers may be aware of children who have or are at risk of developing mental health difficulties but are unsure of how to get them support. When faced with complex issues such as self-harm or eating disorders, teachers can worry about getting it wrong.
The introduction of the “named person” service (which ensures the appointment of a single point of contact for children experiencing difficulties), alongside the legal definition of wellbeing and its assessment, means a renewed focus has been placed on children’s wellbeing and the early identification of difficulties in their lives. In relation to mental health, the early identification of problems to help prevent them from escalating is critical.
However, even if difficulties are spotted early on, community mental health support for children and young people is shockingly underresourced. If a child’s mental health is left to deteriorate to the extent that it requires a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services intervention, it has been left far too late.
With these constraints in mind, it is important to emphasise what can be done to protect and support young people’s mental health. Schools must attend to children and young people’s mental health needs. But they can do this only if they are effectively supported by local authorities dedicated to creating healthy school environments.
The “five ways to wellbeing”, outlined by thinktank the New Economics Foundation, offers evidence-based approaches to support positive mental health and reduce the potential development of mental health problems. They are: “connect”, “be active”, “take notice”, “keep learning” and “give”.
These priorities may not be enough in themselves to remove problems but they can help children to cope and give them something positive to hold on to. They also dovetail with Curriculum for Excellence and Getting it Right for Every Child.
Schools are ideally placed to provide opportunities for children and young people to benefit from them by encouraging pupils to be part of school events that can help them to connect with peers, participate in sports and games, be curious and reflective, try new things, and contribute to their communities through volunteering.
Positive connections with teachers and peers are important. One young person told the Leaders of Learning project: “I want teachers to be aware that I might be putting on a brave face and to take the time to understand what I might be going through.”
Children in Scotland is working hard to improve the support available for children’s and young people’s mental health. In response to calls from parents, Enquire made it the focus of its annual conference this year. It will also be the focus of our Children’s Sector Forum meeting on 21 March. In the run-up to the Holyrood elections in May, we are asking party leaders how they intend to support children’s and young people’s mental health.
To reflect the action needing to be taken to support children and young people in this area, our manifesto for 2016-21 calls on the Scottish government to appoint a dedicated ministerial level post with a mental health remit. We also urge more investment in prevention and early intervention approaches.
The Additional Support for Learning report to Parliament in 2016 focuses on mental health and examples from Education Scotland of good practice in schools, while the Scottish Youth Parliament has also made mental health its campaign priority for 2016 and the Scottish government is in the process of developing a new mental health strategy.
This is a real opportunity to bolster recognition of the importance of good mental health throughout childhood. But to make a real change on this issue requires a concerted effort on many fronts. We need to arm ourselves with knowledge about what helps and hinders the mental health of children and young people and to advocate for change at all levels – within families, schools, local authorities, health boards and government.
Children and young people’s mental health should be everyone’s business. It’s too important for it to be anything less.
Jackie Brock is chief executive of Children in Scotland