Call to raise the profile of and provision for mental health in schools and academies

1 Jan

For the well-being of a nation to be promoted, children’s mental health must be safeguarded.  They are our future.   We commit a heinous crime by neglecting children’s welfare and happiness.   However, children’s mental health is taking a backseat in the provision we make for them within our schools/academies and the wider society.  The focus, at times, is exclusively on a narrow curriculum dominated by English and Mathematics and, when in their teens, the English Baccalaureate.

In the 61st issue of Governors’ Agenda, (see here) we focused on the promotion of children’s mental health.  It is now time to revisit this important matter, especially as there have been developments.

Emily Frith of the Education Policy Institute published in November 2016 Children and Young People’s Mental Health: Time to Deliver.  The report calls for a “high profile, national government programme to ensure a stronger focus on mental health and wellbeing within schools”. The recommendations in the report – set out in three sections – are as follows.

I     Prevention

  1. A sustained focus on raising awareness and reducing stigma.
  2. An easy-to-understand, web-based parenting guide for all parents.
  3. The establishment of a Mental Health Research Institute in order to fund research into understanding mental health, new treatments such as talking therapies or better medication, and develop the evidence base for effective interventions.
  4. A strategy to empower young people to live safe digital lives, which should focus on developing young people’s resilience and critical thinking skills in the face of online threats, given the impossibility of eliminating all online risk. It should cover threats such as excessive internet use, child protection, websites promoting suicide, self-harm or eating disorders (e.g. pro-ana and pro-mia sites that promote anorexia or bulimia and cyber-bullying).

II    Early Intervention

  1. Nationally kite marked, easy-to-access (by drop-in, or self-referral, with no thresholds) services in every area.
  2. A high profile, national government programme to ensure a stronger focus on mental health and well-being within schools. The programme would include
  • evidence-based training for teachers;
  • a trained lead for mental health and well-being in every school/academy, college and university;
  • schools/academies, colleges and universities adopting the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) recommended Whole School Approach model;
  • within its existing framework categories, Ofsted having regard to well-being in any inspection of a school or college;
  • mandatory updated high quality, statutory Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in all schools/academies and colleges, with dedicated time for mental health.
  1. A clear strategy to improve access to the right care for young people with mental health problems from a variety of communities.

III  Delivering better treatment

  1. Areas should not receive their annual share of the additional £1.4bn unless they can demonstrate that they have robust plans to improve care and all the additional funding is being spent on children’s mental health and not offsetting cuts elsewhere. This should include an audit of progress in delivery of their initial local transformation plan and expenditure in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
  2. The strategy should set a series of ambitious goals for care, including that no one should wait more than eight weeks for routine treatment (the current average waiting time across services).
  3. The Government’s Workforce Strategy must be creative around workforce, exploring new ways of working and skills sharing.
  4. The practice of making a young person leave their support service on their 18th birthday must end. Young people should be able to choose when to transition up to the age of 25 with support from their therapists and parents or carers. The report also highlighted a checklist for local health and care leaders based on what we have learnt about the best way to improve service provision. This covers:
  • good commissioning practice;
  • effective partnership working;
  • early-intervention and engagement;
  • workforce development and transition to adult services.

This report will be of use to the government, and local health and care leaders, in the journey towards improving children and young people’s mental health services over the next five years, reducing the ‘treatment gap’ that was identified in the research.

The report follows prior research by the Education Policy Institute, which found that specialist child and adolescent mental health services are turning away 23% of young people referred to them for help. High thresholds for eligibility for help were identified as a barrier to early intervention, as were long waiting times for treatment where referrals were accepted.

Many schools/academies are experiencing a reduction in external support available from local authorities and other providers.  Addressing funding shortfalls in these services should be a priority for government.

The National Governors’ Association (NGA) and many others in the school sector have been calling for PSHE to be made statutory. Governing boards should consider how PSHE is taught in their schools/academies, whether time is dedicated to talking about mental health, and the training teachers receive.

IV    Questions governors/trustees should ask

Pooky Knightsmith, writing in the November/December issue of Governing Matters, an organ of the NGA, sets out nine questions that governors/trustees should ask of their schools’/academies’ management teams, in their endeavour to raise the profile of good mental health.

(a)        Is our school/academy a listening school/academy?

(b)        How aware is the school/academy community of the importance of promoting good mental health?

(c)        Do we have a mental health policy?

(d)       Is mental health a part of our curriculum?

(e)        Have staff been trained to recognise and respond to mental health issues?

(f)        Do staff know who to refer mental health concerns to?

(g)        Have we usefully pooled our knowledge of local support and services?

(h)        Have we considered how best to work with parents and the wider community?

(i)         Are we meeting the emotional well-being needs of staff?

In March 2016, the government published advice for school staff on securing the mental health of children, Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools, which has some excellent pointers for governors and trustees to develop and implement robust policies in this vital area of the extended curriculum.  The increase in the distress, pain, stress levels and depression so many of our youngsters experience as a consequence of poverty and the rampant misuse of social media must not be ignored but rather addressed.  The government’s advice in this paper and Emily Frith’s report give us pointers on how we can do it.

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