Boosting children’s mental health

Health news

A new plan for Government to boost children’s mental health through the education system is released today.

The evidence-based plan is set out in a report by the Child of the North research group which includes University of Leeds academics, and the Centre for Young Lives think tank. 

The UK must prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of its children and young people if it wants to enjoy long-term prosperity.

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, School of Psychology 

The report, “Improving mental health and wellbeing with and through educational settings”, describes the crucial role schools can play in supporting children’s mental health and promoting and supporting wellbeing. With children spending more time in school than in any other formal institutional structure, educational settings provide the ideal opportunity to reach large numbers of children simultaneously and can also facilitate intervention with pupils displaying early mental health or behavioural symptoms. 

It is the third in a series of Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives reports to be published during 2024, focusing on how both the Government and Opposition can reset their vision for children to put the life chances of young people at the heart of policy making and delivery. 

And both groups have launched an online petition calling on politicians to prioritise children and young people in the next political cycle, and to deliver on the ambition for a ‘Children First Government’. 

Child of The North report series editor Mark Mon-Williams, Professor of Psychology in Leeds’ School of Psychology, said: “There is no better measure of the health of a nation than the mental wellbeing of its children and young people. The statistics on mental health in children are heartbreaking and demand immediate action.  

“The UK must prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of its children and young people if it wants to enjoy long-term prosperity. This report shows how the next Government could and should invest in the UK’s future wellbeing.” 

The report comes amid a national epidemic of children’s mental health problems. In 2022, 18% of children aged 7-to-16-years-old and 22% of young people aged 17-to-24 had a probable mental health condition. Despite some extra investment in recent years, the children’s mental health system is blighted by chronic waiting lists and a postcode lottery of provision, and thousands of children and young people continue to struggle without support. More than 32,000 children had been waiting over two years for help at the end of 2022/3. The consequences for school attendance, educational achievement, mental health problems in adulthood, as well as over-stretched public services, economic productivity, and society’s overall wellbeing are enormous. 

The report calls on the Government to expand the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings from primary school onwards, without placing extra burdens on teachers.  

We need to rocket-boost support in schools if we hope to bring down the numbers of children who are struggling with mental health problems.  

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives

Its recommendations include: 

  • Expanding the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings, starting in the primary school years, to all schools. Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) are known to provide effective help to schools, but most schools still do not have access to them. The Government’s current plans mean that from 2025 half of England’s 8 million school age children will still not have access to a MHST in their school, should they need it. The work of MHSTs should be widened so it is not just focused on only one-to-one support for children with moderate-to-severe mental health problems, but is also focused on peer group support and school-wide prevention strategies, including mental health hubs. This can be achieved by involving the community and voluntary sector, alongside health and social care services. 
  • Supporting the creation of a network of ‘one stop shop’ local online NHS information hubs, based on NHS Healthier Together, to signpost children and families to appropriate local mental health support where it is available. This would allow children, families, and schools to learn together about the mental health support offered in their locality and how it can be accessed. The information hub would allow schools to work together more effectively with parents and children to create a supportive learning environment, tailored to local services and the local community. 
  • Harnessing the power of digital technology in a way that benefits the mental health of children by rolling out school-based research surveys like the existing #BeeWell and Age of Wonder projects nationally. This would gather local information about children’s mental health and wellbeing, identify geographical hotspots and determine when the ‘emotional temperature’ of the school is in the danger zone, so that schools can offer early support. 
  • Tackling the upstream determinants of poor mental health, including early support for neurodivergent children. The evidence shows that pre-school and primary school experience can increase the risk for mental health conditions. Government’s strategy to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of young people should include a focus on the pre-school and primary school years. A national strategy to provide greater support for children with neurodiversity in their preschool years to tackle early determinants of poor mental health is also vital.  
  • Addressing the workforce crisis in educational psychology provision to encourage a larger number of graduate psychologists to support schools, alongside teacher training and career development that equips teaching staff to create classroom and school environments that promote pupil wellbeing and support the mental health needs of pupils. Government could and should mandate the provision of such training in the education and development of teaching staff. 

To highlight the scale of mental health problems among young people, the report also includes preliminary data gathered from 5,000 children and young people in Bradford that reveals the shocking rise of eating disorders in the area, including: 

  • One in five (21%) of Year 9 pupils in Bradford reporting a probable eating disorder. 
  • 18% of 12-to-15-year-olds in Bradford reporting symptoms indicative of a probable eating disorder (the national rate among 11-to-16-year olds is 13%). 
  • 17% of 12-to-15 year olds reported self-harm in the last 12 months, with a higher prevalence in girls (20%) compared to boys (13%). 

The study also highlights two priority issues raised by children and young people in Bradford as detrimental to their mental health - problems with lack of sleep and with loneliness. These findings are seen elsewhere. A recent #BeeWell survey examined the relationship between sleep quality in approximately 35,000 young people in more than 150 schools across Greater Manchester. #BeeWell found that more than four in 10 young people reported not getting enough sleep. 

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said: “The rise in the number of children experiencing mental health problems is an ongoing crisis not only for those children and families experiencing it now, but for our country’s future. 

“I have heard so many heartbreaking stories of the lengths children and parents have gone to get support – including, sadly, suicide attempts – but we still seem a long way away from providing the prevention, early help, and treatment that every young person with mental health problems needs. 

“As an anchor in children’s lives, schools have a crucial role to play in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. Yet half of the school age children in England – four million children – will not have access to Mental Health Support Teams under current plans. We need to rocket-boost support in schools if we hope to bring down the numbers of children who are struggling with mental health problems.  

“The current school attendance crisis is likely to be driven in part by children with mental health problems who are unwilling or unable to attend school. We know already that children and young people with mental health conditions are more likely to be absent from school, and that poor mental health significantly impacts on school attendance and outcomes. 

“At the next election, the parties will put forward their proposals for improving children’s mental health. Labour has already pledged to recruit more staff, introduce specialist mental health support for children in every school, and deliver an open access children and young people’s mental health hub for every community. But there should be a cross-party ambition to reduce the prevalence of children’s mental health conditions by half over the next 10 years, and all politicians should agree that the current system is failing too many children and needs urgent attention.” 

Further information

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