School leaders voice concerns over children’s mental health care

05 March 2016

A survey has revealed a rising tide of mental health issues among young people and a serious gap in specialist care beyond the school gates.

Many school leaders reported increases in the number of students suffering from mental health and wellbeing issues over the past five years. More than half (55 per cent) said there had been a large increase in anxiety or stress, and over 40 per cent reported a big increase in the problem of cyberbullying. Nearly eight out of ten (79 per cent) reported an increase in self harm or suicidal thoughts amongst students.

Most schools offer on-site support to students, such as counselling and sessions with educational psychologists, even though a large proportion reported that there was limited funding for these services.

However, nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) say they have had challenges in obtaining mental health care from local services in their area for students who need more specialist support, and 53 per cent who have made a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) rated their effectiveness as poor or very poor.

The findings reflect cutbacks in CAMHS in many areas of the country over the past five years. The Government has recently pledged to invest an extra £1billion for mental health care by 2021.

Eighty per cent of survey respondents said they would like to see CAMHS expanded in their area.

The survey was conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Children’s Bureau. It received 338 responses, mostly from leaders in secondary schools.

ASCL Interim General Secretary Malcolm Trobe will today tell the association’s annual conference in Birmingham: “While schools do an excellent job in providing their own support on-site, our survey shows a serious gap in mental health provision beyond the school gates.

“Leaders tell us that they have difficulty in accessing local specialist support. They have problems in obtaining information about the wellbeing of young people who are referred. And many doubt the effectiveness of services which are often pitifully resourced.

“The fact is that children today face an extraordinary range of pressures. They live in a world of enormously high expectations, where new technologies present totally new challenges such as cyberbullying. There has seldom been a time when specialist mental health care is so badly needed and yet it often appears to be the poor relation of the health service.

“Its importance cannot be over-emphasised. Early intervention is essential before problems become entrenched and start to increase in severity. These services are a vital lifeline that many young people cannot do without.”

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It is alarming that teachers are seeing ever greater numbers of children self-harming or having suicidal thoughts. For these young people, and many others like them, their psychological states are almost too distressing to bear.

“While schools are doing their best to help, in cases where children are in acute need they require specialist mental health services to step in and provide support. Unfortunately, teachers say that limited capacity in these services often makes referrals very difficult.

“This research confirms that better provision of child mental health services, both in and outside school, is still sorely needed.”