This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, led by the Mental Health Foundation. The campaign is aimed mainly at adults but at a time when, as the chief executive of Barnardo’s recently warned, the situation in children’s mental health “is getting more severe and more difficult by the day”, we can’t afford to ignore children and young people either.
Last week Parliament’s education and health select committees released a highly critical report on the government’s “unambitious” children and young people’s mental health Green Paper. MPs argued that the proposals would “put significant pressure on the teaching workforce without guaranteeing sufficient resources”.
Similar concerns emerged when Schools North East, the organisation of which I am director, consulted the school leaders on our governing bodies to inform our response to the Green Paper consultation. What came out most strongly was a sense that we are reaching a limit on the responsibilities schools and their staff can take on in the absence of additional ongoing funding.
The evidence that mental health is vital for child development is strong, yet there is still no systematic, funded programme to promote mental health and wellbeing in schools in England. This is perhaps surprising, as not only do estimates from national survey data show large costs to schools from mental health-related service contacts, but we have actually known about the importance of mental health promotion in schools since the time of Plato; in Republic, he wrote “by maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character”.
And yet we have failed to embed mental health awareness and evidence-based mental health interventions into our education system. Even things that seem like complete no-brainers, such as including mental health awareness as part of initial teacher training and providing widely available, school-related training for mental health professionals, remain lacking.
Has anyone asked pupils what they want?
Yet the most glaring omission from the whole child mental health debate is any significant degree of engagement with what the pupils themselves think of it all. Most people have their own ideas on why the problem with children and young people’s mental health seems to be worsening. In popular discourse, we regularly hear that addiction to social media, the political direction of travel towards a “high-stakes” education system, the complexity of modern life or simply better diagnosis may be the cause of the trend. Yet without a more concrete, evidence-based understanding, we are left in the dark about what pupils think.
The Schools North East “Healthy Minded Commission”, founded in 2016 and chaired by Professor Dame Sue Bailey, recognised from the outset that, in developing structures for mental health support in school, there had been little or no engagement with pupils. We acknowledged that great value could be derived from properly engaging pupils in the debate and including them in the design of proactive and reactive support.
The commission’s “Voice of the Pupil” project is what emerged from this. This piece of work uses small focus groups with pupils in school settings to explore their experiences of mental health, with a view to using the findings to shape future school-based mental health interventions. We’ve completed the initial piloting and will be sharing the outcomes at our annual Healthy MindED conference on 24 May, where we hope to get more school leaders involved in the work and expand the study across the North East.
There is clearly a strong economic and ethical argument for improving access to high-quality mental health services for all children, regardless of their parents’ income. We can dream about what a reformed children’s mental health system might look like in, say, 10 years' time – with vastly reduced waiting times for specialist support, swift, effective early intervention and ever closer links between health and education – and gather evidence to help us get closer to that ideal.
But while applying the growing evidence base can ensure quality, both public interest and political will are needed to ensure that it is successfully implemented. We need to use opportunities like Mental Health Awareness week to keep children and young people’s mental health high on the political agenda; the next generation won’t forgive us if we don’t.
Mike Parker is the director of Schools NorthEast