The stats were shocking even prior to COVID-19 and the lockdown:
‘1 in 4 people experience mental ill health each year’
‘The total cost of mental ill health is estimated at £10 5billion per year’
‘75% of mental ill health develops by age 18’
‘Approximately 20% of young people with mental ill health wait more than six months to receive care from a specialist’
(statistics from Mental Health First Aid England)
It seems highly likely that numbers of people with mental ill health (both children and adults) will have increased over the last few months, with access to appropriate treatments becoming more difficult. A report from Education Support found that 52% of teachers felt that their mental health and wellbeing has suffered over the last months; teachers who are struggling with their own mental health issues are not in a strong position to support their pupils who may also be struggling. The Centre for Mental Health study ‘Covid-19 and the nation’s mental health’ (July 2020) reports that levels of psychological and mental ill health are rising internationally; this is particularly the case for those most affected, for example by local lockdowns, or in people with an existing condition. This report emphasises the need to proactively protect the mental health of children and young people, which will require targeted funding for those in the highest risk groups.
People from minority groups disproportionately experience mental ill health: people who identify as LGBT+ have higher levels of mental ill health than those who do not, particularly around anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide; psychosis is more common in people from BAME backgrounds. There is also likely to be an effect of intersectionality i.e. anyone who belongs to more than one of these groups will be at an even higher level of risk; be aware of who this might be in your school or setting.
Anxiety, which is associated with poor physical, emotional and social functioning, is on the increase across both genders between the ages of 18 and 44 as shown in the research paper ‘Trends in generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms in primary care: UK population-based cohort study’ (Slee, Nazareth, Freemantle & Horsfall, 2020).
However, barriers to receiving both identification of our mental health needs and support for them, continue to exist. There is still a stigma around mental ill health which simply does not exist for physical ill health. There is limited capacity in the system at all levels, from within schools and workplaces through the NHS and social care services. Most teachers and other education professionals do not have the knowledge they feel they need to offer ‘mental health first aid’ or intervention; and some school policy-drivers do not support positive approaches to mental ill health (for example, zero tolerance approaches or league tables).
When do we need to think about identifying a pupil’s mental health needs as ‘SEMH’ i.e. as a special educational need? Essentially, this would be when the individual needs special provision i.e. something that is ‘additional to’ and ‘different from’ that which others of their age can access in their school or setting – so the more you have in place to support everyone with their mental health and wellbeing, the fewer pupils will need to be identified with SEN in this area.
What can leaders in education do to support the children and young people in their care?
- First, be aware of the issue, for both staff and pupils - we need mentally healthy staff if we are to do the best for our pupils
- Implement whole school policies and strategies that support everyone’s mental health and wellbeing, such as the ‘Recovery Curriculum’
- Reduce pressure on both staff and pupils to immediately close the gaps caused by the lockdown at the expense of a wider approach to supporting progress over the longer term – too much focus on ‘making up for lost time’ seems likely to actually make learning more challenging for many if they have mental health needs which are not being met
- Have systems in place to identify those staff and pupils who seem to be experiencing severe or on-going issues, whether they come forward themselves or not – do you and your staff understand when a pupil’s mental ill health might need to be identified as a special educational need (SEMH), as discussed above?
- Do your staff feel confident to perform ‘mental health first aid’, as they would physical health first aid? Education staff are not expected to be therapists or counsellors, but there is much we can do to recognise some early identifiers of need.
nasen offers training in Youth Mental Health First Aid for anyone who works or lives with or supports children and young people aged 8-18. This training helps the adults in a young person’s life to have the skills and confidence to step in, offer first aid and guide them towards the support they need. Read more here.
Finally, if you are a school leader, please ensure that you are looking after your own mental health and wellbeing as well as everyone else’s, so that you are in a strong position to enable those for whom you are responsible to make the best possible recovery from this most challenging of times. If you are struggling, you can look here, and also please speak to someone you trust.