Children’s mental health problems cry out for solutions

17 Aug

Data published by The Times on 6 August 2018 revealed that the number of girls who have self-harmed, based on hospital admissions, doubled in the last 20 years in Britain.   Among teenagers, the number of both, boys and girls, who admitted self-poisoning with easily available and prescription drugs rose more sharply.

According to the National Health Service 7,327 girls were admitted to hospital in 1997 for self-harm.   This jumped to 13,463 in 2017.  Altogether, 249 girls were treated for attempting to overdose themselves. This rose to 2,736 – over tenfold – in 2017.     However, boys who self-harmed stayed constant (2,236 in 1997 and 2,332 last year). Notwithstanding, boys who overdosed themselves increased over five and a half times from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017.

Denis Campbell wrote in The Guardian on 23 June 2018 that teachers said that Britain’s school children were suffering from an epidemic of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts but barely received the NHS treatment they needed. Altogether, 78% of teachers encountered at least one pupil struggling with mental health problems over the last year and 14% of cases were allied to suicidal thoughts and behaviour.  Two-thirds of 300 teachers surveyed by the health charity, Stem4, said that they had to help pupils suffering from anxiety. A little under half (45%) of teachers supported at least one pupil suffering with depression, 30% with eating disorders, 28% with self-harm and 10% with addiction.

Dr Nihara Krause, the Chief Executive of Stem4, said: “Schools face huge challenges in dealing with mental health issues of their students, and teachers are on the front line. They witness first-hand the devastating impact of pressures such as exam anxiety, bullying, and family problems. The consequences of these problems are serious, often life-threatening, and teachers are desperate to help,” said Krause.

“Yet at a time when the need for preventative, early intervention and specialist services are soaring, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the help their pupils need. There’s an urgent requirement for better support mechanisms in schools, as well as decent funding for the range of mental health services children and young people need.”

Access to mental health care continues to be stubbornly unavailable from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

On December 4, 2017, the then Secretaries of State for Education (Justine Greening) and Health (Jeremy Hunt) issued a Green Paper setting out proposals to improve the mental health provision for youngsters.

The Green Paper is turning out to be like all Green Papers – making proposals which seldom move to action.   The Green Paper had suggested that every school/academy appoint a designated lead, who would help young people with mental health issues, provide support and advice to them (the pupils) and staff, and teach pupils about the consequences of poor mental health.   For this purpose, a national training programme was to be in place by 2025.

Government would arrange for researchers to investigate

  • the impact of the internet, particularly social media, on mental health;
  • how families can give support to those suffering with mental health issues; and
  • how mental health problems can be avoided in the future.

Mental ill-health stems from various sources – i.e.

  • within oneself such as genetic influences, communication difficulties and low self-esteem;
  • in the family – where there could be domestic violence, hostile relationships and physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect;
  • in a school/academy where there is bullying, deviant peer influences and poor pupil-teacher relationships; and
  • in the community where young people may be homeless, the subjects of disaster, accidents and war and/or the victims of unfair discrimination.

In our attempt to prevent mental ill-health, which is better than finding a cure, experts have suggested we identify the causes of poor mental health.  Jon Goldin, vice-chairman of the Child and Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told The Times: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children — academic pressures, exam pressures, social media . . . with fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.”  Responding to a question, he added that girls self-harmed more than boys because they were probably more sensitive to comments made on social media.  Girls also were more likely than boys to be the victims of violence albeit the number of knife crimes in the country, especially in London, affects black boys more than anyone else.

According to Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, Ministers blame social media, social media companies blame exam stress and other pressures and we, members of the public, blame the world and his dog.   There is a strong correlation between the increased use of social media and children’s mental health problems.  However, there are other factors as mentioned above e.g. within schools/academies, where there is covert and overt bullying and in families, where many children are the victims of abuse.  Because we are not sure, we keep passing the buck about who precisely is responsible for the increasing incidence in children’s mental ill-health.

So, what has Ms Longfield suggested would be a useful way forward?

First, she would like to see a professional from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in every secondary school/academy immediately – not in five years’ time.

Second, primary schools/academies should have access to proper counselling and children taught about the pros and cons of using the internet.

Third, parents should take more responsibility for their children and think deeply before giving their children smartphones.  If push comes to shove and they do give them mobile phones, they should teach them to use the phones as useful servants rather than become slaves to them.  For instance, parents must show tough love and have these phones switched off at a reasonable hour of the night.

Fourth, schools/academies should toughen up their policies on the use of mobile phones and educate parents about their children’s use – both the up- and down-sides.

There is, of course, a fifth course of action that government needs to consider carefully.  Ministers – like the rest of the nation – are keen for our education to be as good as it can be and our children are happy and enjoy the education they are offered.  However, they should stop obsessing about league tables.   Within our schools/academies, many governors and headteachers are so concerned about our pupils and students hitting targets and pushing their schools/academies up these league tables, they ignore children’s mental health and cause them to suffer unduly.

Matt Hancock and Damian Hinds, the Health and Education Secretaries respectively, admitted that people with mental health problems did not have the same level of support as those with physical illnesses in the past.  Wouldn’t it, however, be so much more effective if they (and we) work towards eliminating the causes of mental ill-health which would save time and money finding cures?


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