More children show signs of mental illness, teachers say

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
Growing fears about mental health problems prompt experts to host a summit on the impact on education

The first national event exploring how mental health problems can damage children’s learning will take place in March, amid “huge concern” that this is a rapidly growing problem in Scotland.

As preparations were being made for the event, 71 per cent of teachers reported an increase in pupils with signs of mental health problems, in a poll by the teaching union EIS.

The news came as a report from the Mental Health Foundation this week found “high levels of stigma and discrimination” against pupils with mental health issues in schools (bit.ly/MentalHealthReview).

The Children in Scotland charity will bring experts together on 10 March in Stirling for a conference entitled “Positive Mental Health in Schools: Overcoming Barriers to Learning”.

According to the charity, the conference will “address emerging themes and foster debate about children and young people’s mental health issues and their impact on education.”

It will also provide those working in schools with “knowledge and practical tools to support pupils’ emotional wellbeing”.

The findings of the EIS survey prompted conference organisers to include sessions on building pupils’ resilience. The union’s general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said that teachers had reported “very high increases” in both mental and physical health problems among pupils, which were “a huge concern” that highlighted “the true cost of political choices that have driven more families into poverty”.

Alex Orr, policy adviser for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SSSC), said that teachers needed better training to identify children with mental health problems and quickly provide the right response. “The tendency in the past may have been to attribute mental health and behavioural difficulties to poor parenting, and this can still be the case where teachers and social workers have not received adequate training,” he added.

Feeling the pressure

There were many “enormous pressures” potentially contributing to the rise in mental health problems, Mr Orr said. These included school stress, bullying, sexual pressures, body image, the “24/7 online environment”, family splits and cuts to support services.

Getting education and support right in the early years is crucial, he said, as children who start P1 “ill-prepared for formal education tend to have poor long-term outcomes in terms of academic attainment and mental health”. Bob Cassells, a recently retired secondary school leader, blamed new qualifications. He said that the longstanding “two-term dash” to Higher had been replicated by a two-term dash to National 5, causing huge stress to pupils.

Sally Cavers, manager of the Enquire advice service run by Children in Scotland, said that it was receiving a particularly high number of calls from parents of children with autism, many of whom find school difficult.

Although the March conference will focus on education, Ms Cavers said that it would also include health professionals because a “joined-up approach” to meeting children’s mental health needs in schools is “critical”.

The Scottish Youth Parliament voted to make mental health a priority and has launched an awareness campaign, Speak Your Mind. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that an extra £54 million will be spent on mental health services over the next four years, with a focus on services for young people.

A report this week from Potential Plus UK showed that children with “high potential” were increasingly suffering from loneliness and extra worries. One parent of an 8-year-old said that the boy had wanted to die by suicide, adding: “We know that he self-harms – he says it is a release from what he is feeling when the pressure builds up.”

@Henry_Hepburn

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