Headteacher Speaks Out On Lack Of Mental Health Support For Children
Mental health awareness has grown seismically in the past decade, but while it's now spoken about widely in adults, the conversation around mental health issues in children is - like the kids themselves - in its infancy.
However, the problem is very real. Recent figures estimate that one in eight (12.8 per cent) of five to 19-year-olds have a mental health disorder, according to an official government report.
More distressingly, 191 primary school pupils have self harmed and four pupils have tried to kill themselves on school premises since 2015, according to the BBC, with an estimated 200 schoolchildren dying by suicide every year in the UK, according to the ONS.
Currently, schools in the UK offer mental health services to students discretionarily. If cases are particularly bad, they can refer students to NHS-run child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
There has been nearly a 50 per cent rise in referrals to these services from pupils aged 11 and under in the past three years.
Many of these children are turned away, or forced to wait on waiting lists for up to two years, because their problems are "not considered severe enough to warrant access to overstretched services."
One woman who is witnessing the problem first-hand is Sue Blair, headteacher at Pennine Way Primary School in Carlisle, Cumbria, who says mental health is "a growing concern" in her school.
"We have children who have eating disorders at nine-years-old, self harming at five, and wishing they were dead at eight," she told PRETTY 52. "Whilst we try to adapt our curriculum to meet the needs of our pupils we are not trained mental health workers or social workers. We are educators."
Sue, who has been teaching for 32 years and in her role as headteacher at Pennine Way for 15, thinks social media has a large part to play in the growing numbers of pupils suffering.
"Whilst the internet and other forms of online communications can be really positive, there's also a negative side that can cause great stress and upset," she added.
The educator thinks social media is closely linked to bullying, a subject that has been in the news recently after 12-year-old schoolboy Mason Warwick from Brighton tragically killed himself following being targeted by bullies.
And earlier this month, schoolboy Sam Connor was hit by a train in front of his friends in a tragic incident that is feared to have been a deliberate act.
Families and schools need to continue to work together to ensure that the curriculum reflects the growing concerns around social media, on-line bullying, and body image.
"Primary Schools are doing an amazing job at helping children to develop strategies to stay safe and be mentally strong," Sue said. "I think that social media companies need to play their part and strengthen their safeguarding policies and practices."
Pennine Way, made up of 450 pupils, has a wellbeing centre (called Dingely Dell), where three staff - an inclusion champion, mental health supporter, and attendance officer - help children. The school also has two trained mental health first aiders.
If cases are particularly bad, staff can refer students to CAMHS, but Sue explained these are often declined for reasons such as the child being too young, or that their home situation is too turbulent and will need to settle before being assessed.
"The need does not meet the threshold, which seems to change daily," she told us.
To explain her school's approach to supporting students with mental health issues, Sue uses the analogy of motorway driving.
She explained: "The main purpose is to get from A to B. We want every pupil to be able to get where they need to go without incident or stress.
"Some pupils can slip easily into the outside lane and cruise along without fear or worry, and they can listen to music, make phone calls and notice the scenery as they drive along. But other pupils get stuck in the middle lane.
Adding: "Some pupils cannot get out of the inside lane and actually some pupils never manage to get onto the motorway at all. They need the minor roads; they go around several roundabouts and even stay on the ring-roads for a while. But everyone can get there in the end.
"Pupils may additional support and directions from the SATNAV, sometimes we need to stop at the services and sometimes we may even need to use a different form of transport. But everyone can achieve their goals and targets with help."
A report into the issue ordered by the House of Commons found that work to increase mental health staff numbers in the NHS has progressed "more slowly than planned".
However new methods of supporting young people's mental health - such as through prevention and intervention - are being developed. Still, it urged: "The government must make urgent headway on all these fronts if it is to provide the mental health services and support that young people need."
For Sue, the lack of government urgency could be resolved by a greater conversation about the severity of the issue.
She said: "We need to continue to publicise the issues, we need to continue to explore better ways of working together with other agencies such as health, social care, and the police.
"The Government also need to acknowledge that more funding needs to be given in real terms, not just on paper or as a PR stunt."
For help and support with any issues related, call Young Minds' parents helpline on 0808 802 5544 or visit their website at youngminds.org.uk.
Featured Image Credit: PA