The mental health of pupils at primary school is at ‘crisis point’, with anxiety, self-harm and suicide rising, a recent survey of school leaders and teachers in England has found. The survey, which found that eight of 10 teachers agree mental health among pupils is deteriorating, coincides with research published by the University of Exeter which concluded that a swift response is needed before the problem gets out of hand. The research also found that poor mental health can be both cause, and effect.
The University of Exeter research found that children with mental health needs require urgent support from primary school onwards to avoid exclusion later on in high school, which can be both cause and effect of poor mental health. The research, which was funded by a doctoral studentship from the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research together with Care South West Peninsula, found also that gender was a factor: boys who entered school with poor mental health are at higher risk of exclusion in primary school, while girls who were excluded in their final year of school experienced deteriorating mental health challenges after that point.
In England, teachers blame inadequate support and funding cuts for the worsening mental health challenges in schools. According to respondents, the biggest problem is a lack of qualified, dedicated staff to deal with the growing problem, which makes sense, since teachers are already burdened by admin at the best of times. How are they supposed to find the time to counsel young people on top of that? Fewer than half the respondents said their school had a counsellor, and only 30 percent had been able to access external specialist support such as NHS child and adolescent mental health services. A mere 12 percent had a “mental health first aider”, as suggested by the government.
The sad thing is, the government has recognised the dire need for further funding for some time now. Over a year ago, Theresa May promised taxpayers a major expansion of NHS mental healthcare for children and young people in an attempt to tackle the “scandal” of many minors not having access to treatment. Unfortunately, May is now out of office, and during her time there she achieved very little in the way of addressing children’s mental health, despite having chosen it as one of her key policy areas. Her failure to do so can only be described as sad, given how much emphasis she gave to the issue on being elected.
“It’s time to rethink how we tackle this issue,” were May’s words early on, before Brexit took over her list of priorities. “Which is why I believe the next great revolution in mental health should be in prevention.”
One respondent of the recent survey in England spoke of how desperate the situation is becoming: “We are at a crisis point with mental health,” they said. “Much more anxiety, self-harming. Three suicides in three years in my school alone.”
The support needed for young people to adequately deal with growing mental health challenges goes far beyond the classroom though, experts warn. At home, parents need to be cognisant of how to deal with such issues, while other adult figures in children’s lives including tutors and extended family should also pay attention to mood changes, behaviour changes and other signs such as unexplained weight loss.
On the other side of the world, tutors at Primary School Tutors Sydney are now adding mental health first aid training to their repertoire in the understanding that young people need that level of support now more than ever.
Meanwhile back in the UK, the organisation Action Mental Health has launched a new mental health promotion programme for Primary Schools called ‘Healthy Me’. Designed to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing amongst young children in the school setting, the initiative is designed to provide youngsters with the skills, coping strategies and resilience to deal with mental health challenges.
“Transition from primary to secondary school is a particularly stressful time for children and we believe that targeting the programme at P6/P7 children will help them cope with this transition,” said Action Mental Health Chief Executive David Babington. “Modern life is stressful and can impact on mental health, so implementing strategies for protecting children from stress and helping them learn to cope with change is an extremely positive influence on their young lives. We hope to see the programme adopted across Northern Ireland in the not too distant future.”