Mental health support in schools is patchy and badly publicised, and pupils believe that it is not seen as a priority by schools, a major piece of research has shown, as experts warned of a “crisis” in children’s psychological wellbeing.
The large-scale study calls for schools to draw up “mental health action plans” and for Education Scotland to crack down on schools which do not have a minimum amount of counselling provision.
In a survey, some 42 per cent of young people who said they had experienced a mental health problem reported that their school, college, university or workplace did not provide a supportive environment to talk about their mental health.
The study of 1,500 people – most of whom were aged 12 to 17 and still at school – reveals that young people instead tended to seek other opportunities outside of their places of learning to talk about their mental health problems. These included going to youth clubs, voluntary organisations, sports clubs – and even heavy metal concerts.
“With mental health, teachers understand that they don’t know enough, so they don’t feel they can support you, so they won’t talk about it,” said one respondent, voicing a view that was widely shared in the Scottish Youth Parliament report, Our Generation’s Epidemic (bit.ly/SYPmentalhealth).
Others said that mental health was “way down the list of priorities” at school or that it had never even been mentioned in personal and social education classes. Some felt that secondary school was now “all about how to pass exams” rather than learning how to be “healthy and happy”.
Pupils complained that schools’ mental health services were not advertised enough or that they might have to wait months to see an educational psychologist, and that teachers were “stretched too thin” and lacked the resources to tackle mental health.
Young people called for awareness-raising posters in every school – “bright and colourful, not of people looking depressed” – and for a rule that information on mental health had to be distributed at the start of every term. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed did not know what mental health information, support and services were available to them in their area.
Pupils were more comfortable talking about mental health with their friends than teachers, although the potential loss of confidentiality made some scared to tell anyone at all. “You never know what a person could do with that information – they could tell your whole year [at school] or something,” said one.
‘A feeling of acceptance’
One fan of heavy metal music recalled a gig where a speaker came on stage before the headline act to talk about mental health: “It made me feel almost safe and comfortable as the issue was being addressed to a crowd of people that are stereotypically known for struggling with these issues.
“Everyone who knew someone with depression or was struggling with it themselves put up a light by phone or a lighter. It was quite moving in a way to see that most people had their light up and there was a feeling of acceptance.”
But the survey also produced some positive messages about school, with guidance staff receiving praise and one young person saying: “There are always some teachers you feel you can talk to.”
Terri Smith, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, said young people’s mental health in Scotland was “at a crisis level”.
“At the moment, we are failing our young people, and those experiencing mental health problems are being made to wait months and sometimes years for help,” she said. “Many young people are being told that their mental health problems are a phase that they will grow out of, and just generally not being taken seriously.”
The report recommends that every school, college, university and youth group should put in place a mental health action plan, including an annual awareness week for their staff and students.
Education Scotland, meanwhile, should increase the focus on mental health in Curriculum for Excellence and review the number of counsellors in school, while establishing a minimum provision.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that teachers’ mental health is also a worry, with “unsustainable workload” having a “huge impact”.
Child poverty is “a real cause for concern”, he added. In a recent EIS survey, some 72 per cent of teachers reported an increase in the number of pupils showing signs of mental health problems.
The union is supporting a Medica CPD conference in Glasgow in November, which will look at ways to support children suffering from anxiety, depression, self-harming and eating disorders (bit.ly/ConfMedica).
Fewer psychologists offer support at school
The number of educational psychologists in Scotland has fallen by a tenth in three years, at a time when there is growing concern about children’s mental health, it has emerged.
There were 370 educational psychologists practising in local authorities in 2015, compared with 411 in 2012.
Scottish Labour inequality spokeswoman Monica Lennon, who obtained the figures from education secretary John Swinney in a Parliamentary question, said the drop came “amid a backdrop of repeated missed targets for mental health treatment”. Stuart Jacob, director of Falkland House School in Fife (pictured, right), which works with boys who have additional support needs, said that the government figures were “very disappointing”.
He pointed out that the number of pupils who had ASN across the country had increased from 131,621 in 2013 to 153,190 in 2015.
Mr Jacob blamed a Scottish government decision in 2012 to remove a bursary that was paid to trainee educational psychologists.
A government spokeswoman said: “It is for each local authority to take decisions around how many educational psychologists it employs.”
‘Wellbeing must be on an equal footing with literacy’
“Research indicates that 10 per cent of people aged 5-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, and 20 per cent of adolescents may experience one in any given year.
“The causes are complex, with an increasing recognition of such problems accompanied by a shift in what is understood by “mental health” – far more children once classified as having “social, emotional and behavioural needs” now fall into categories of, for example, ADHD and autism.
“Children and young people feel enormous pressures, from bullying to the 24/7 online environment and sexual pressures. There are issues around body image, isolation, stress at school and family breakdown. The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, which I represent, welcomes the Scottish Youth Parliament research – it very much echoes our experience.
“We would like to see more counselling available in secondary schools, something where Scottish schools are lagging behind the rest of the UK. Health and wellbeing must be on an equal footing to literacy and numeracy – it too often slips down the priority list.
“Also, we need to make sure that mental health education is a compulsory aspect of teacher training and something that is then properly assessed in school inspections.”
Seona Weir is a manager for Young Foundations, which provides residential and fostering services for children with mental health issues