After two years of masks, isolation, disruption to routine, illness, and difficulties with grades, it’s no wonder mental health is one of the main issues blighting our students at schools across the country. With adult mental health services out on their feet, over half of referred adults wait more than 3 months for first contact before therapy is even initiated, and 1 in 10 adults don’t see someone within a year. The link between the child services and adult mental health services are the inextricable links to issues that begin in childhood, a time of identification and fluidity in personality, which then snowball into much more serious problems in adulthood. The struggle of adolescence has only become harder with Covid, lockdowns, social media and a rush to normality for our children and it’s not surprising to see so many younger people developing more pernicious mental health issues. NHS England recently announced a game changing initiative to reach children and young adults in school and start providing the care they desperately need.
In May, the government announced unprecedented support for millions of school pupils who are now able to access much more easily specialist mental health services as schools and parents warn of exponential demand for services. Nearly 5,000 schools around the country now have mental health support teams on hand, with many training staff to be ‘mental health first aiders’. For school age children, this 1st contact is vital to quell feelings of anxiety, depression and body image issues in more of an up-stream approach as opposed to waiting for problems to spiral and become much more macabre mental health diagnoses. This is a nice change, but it’s hardly surprising given the record demand for adult services, particularly referrals in the 18-30 age bracket – and decades of public health policy has taught that the sooner issues can be cared for, the less serious the eventual cascading mental health issues become. For this new initiative, with over 500 specific teams to be established before 22/23, it’s estimated 2.4 million children and young people now have easier access to specialist support.
650,000 children and young people had direct contact with NHS mental health services in 2021, with the levels in pre pandemic around 534,000. After the first lockdowns with COVID-19, it was reported that 1 in 5 children in the UK were self-harming and experiencing mental health struggles amidst restrictions. In our previous article, we noted the stark increase in eating disorders in children, with lead clinician Prof Chitsabesan stating, “Young people’s problems (sic) can begin as a coping strategy or a way of feeling in control but may lead to more restrictive patterns of eating and behaviours. The rise could be attributed to the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, feeling isolated, disruption to routines and experiences of loss and uncertainty”. In the age group of 15-24, young men are three times more likely to take their own life than women of the same age, with complex sociocultural factors influencing this, particularly a culture where adolescent males feel unable to talk about issues and things they are struggling with. State of Child Health states, “Suicide represents the extreme endpoint of mental ill-health in children and young people. Many more young people either have suicidal ideation, attempt suicide, and a greater number still self-harm”.
One of the complex sociocultural issues that rings continually is the role of social media in the identity forming of young children and NHS England notes, “Experts hope that by intervening early they can prevent problems escalating into serious mental health issues, with health chiefs warning that the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic can be compounded by factors like pressure experienced on social media platforms”. So what is to be offered?
Referrals to the teams can be made by teachers or GPs, as well as the young person themselves through the texting service they have established.
Experts in the teams will offer children one-to-one and group therapy sessions
The school community will have awareness workshops for teachers in looking for signs that a student may be struggling.
Those with issues will be given coping strategies on how to cope, including workshops on how to sleep better – something which is often disregarded despite being a pivotal factor for overall health.
The teams also run wellbeing sessions for teachers who may struggle in the knowledge that their students have experienced trauma or abuse.
The initiative marks £79 million in resources which are directed at an upstream approach to public health – the notion that treating issues before they even begin is the best way to prevent crises and situations where young people feel no escape and thus turn to harm or suicide. The move also opens dialogue for recommendations and public input to form a nationwide mental health strategy – and this has been needed at a meta-level for decades. As societal pressures have further accelerated the deterioration of many of our children and students’ mental health, the alarm bells are ringing clear and more must be done to prevent harm, poor mental health and eventual suicide in our pupils who deserve an uplifting and positive childhood transition into adolescence.