A silent epidemic

18 March 2016

Leader logoMental ill health is an issue affecting every classroom in every school, every day. The statistics are staggering...

Cases of mental illness among young people have rocketed in recent years. Anna Cole looks at the steps being taken to help schools and other services support students in distress.

ASCL has teamed up with the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to carry out a survey of members to understand how schools and colleges support the mental health and well-being of their students, how they are supported by local specialist mental health support services and what the main challenges are. We will be publishing a briefing paper in March and will share the findings from the survey through our usual communication channels.

It seems that there is better awareness and understanding of the number, complexity and range of mental health problems that children and young people suffer from than in previous years. Sadly, this greater awareness is not being matched by greater capacity within specialist mental health support services. In fact, support services have, in recent years, come under increasing pressure and been subject to greater local variability due to funding cuts and a government emphasis on local determination rather than central direction. As the UK Youth Select Committee has said: children and young people’s mental health services have become a ‘Cinderella service’.

Members tell me that the mental health of the children and young people in their care is now one of their most urgent and pressing concerns. They acknowledge the need for school staff to have a good grounding in early identification and interventions. ASCL has been supporting the NCB in the creation of a self-evaluation tool for leaders to help with this challenge.

School and colleges do not, however, see a role for them in providing treatment. Many school and college leaders tell us that they are increasingly unable to access, or to access in time, much-needed support for the young people in their care.

Last summer ASCL Council’s Inclusion Committee said that schools and colleges are delivering ‘emotional first aid’ without essential training, supervision or funding and that treatment must be the remit of adequately qualified and clinically supervised health professionals. They, like others across the country, expressed real concern that the needs of children and young people are in many cases not addressed until they become acute.

Mental ill health is an issue affecting every classroom in every school, every day.  The statistics* are staggering:

  • An estimated one in ten children and young people in the UK have a diagnosable mental health issue.

  • Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

  • The number of children and young people going to A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 (8,358 in 2010/11; 17,278 in 2013/14).

  • About 25 per cent of young people self-harm on at least one occasion.

  • UK hospital admissions of 13 to 19 year-olds with eating disorders nearly doubled from 2010 to 2014 (959 in 2010/11 to 1,815 in 2013/14).

Increasingly, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is unable to do the essential preventative work or to give early support because waiting times are too long and/or intervention thresholds set too high. In some cases even when a child needs immediate support (due to being a risk to themselves or others) CAMHS may not be available.

It is not disproportionate to say that, in many areas, community-based provision as well as acute provision has reached a crisis point. Schools and colleges are  having to call the police or to send children or young people to A&E to ensure that they are seen by a properly trained mental health worker.

The good news is that there is a lot happening at the moment in children and young people’s mental health services. Local areas are having to agree transformation plans for children’s mental health provision that will include setting out the role of schools and early intervention as well as proposals for how they develop any revised or new community pathway. The transformation plans are the responsibility of local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and the first plans were submitted by all local CCGs last December.

It is crucial that the voices of school and college leaders are heard when these plans are being developed. However, in many areas schools and colleges are reporting that they have not been involved in drawing up their local transformation plan. This needs to change.

The Department for Education, meanwhile, has joined forces with NHS England to launch the Mental Health Services and Schools Link Pilots to test a named single point of contact. Government is also providing nearly £5 million to various voluntary sector projects delivering support to children and young people with mental health issues, including projects to promote positive mental health in schools as well as the promised £5 million for character education.

These government initiatives and the funding that goes with them are welcome. Whether they will be adequate to address the scale of the problem remains to be seen.

* Figures are from Young Minds – a leading UK charity. See http://tinyurl.com/zwctzgo

Anna Cole is ASCL Parliamentary Specialist