#InPoverty: Can schools do more to support children’s mental health?

As the child and adolescent mental health services are overstretched and underfunded, schools are being called to step up and help support children with their mental health

Mental health support in schools could be the main solution to how overstretched CAMHS is, this could mean less children will feel failed and trapped in services that aren’t helping them. Credit Banter Snaps on Unsplash

Olivia Williams, from Cardiff, has experienced mental health problems from the age of 15, specifically anxiety and depression.

She has also struggled with self-harm and restricting her eating. When her mood became low she would feel impulsive and destructive. 

Olivia is one of many young people in Wales who feel they have been failed by both the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and her school.

“Schools across the UK and Wales do not have to have a standalone mental health policy and while wellbeing was promoted in our school, mental health was rarely discussed so I never really realised that I was ill until it was almost too late,” says Olivia. 

“I reached a really low point when I was about sixteen and attempted to take my own life,” she continues. “It was only then that I realised there was something wrong.” 

She was referred to CAMHS, which is all NHS services that deal with mental health difficulties in young people. Olivia received 12 weeks of therapy and tried different antidepressant medication, but after that period she felt the same as when she was first referred. Now at the age of 24, nearly eight years after her first experience of the service, she believes that it still remains underfunded and understaffed. 

“I was disappointed because they didn’t provide me with the help I needed, after 12 weeks I still felt exactly the same,” Olivia adds. “I felt so lost and let down. I was trapped in a system that couldn’t help me.” 

Olivia continued to say that schools need to be doing more to help children, primarily with educating them on symptoms and having teachers trained so they can intervene early. 

Mental health support in schools could be the answer to the demand currently on CAMHS. If children were taught from an early age about different symptoms to look out for, if teachers had basic training on how to support young people and were educated on how to intervene early, then this could seriously reduce the amount of children being referred to CAMHS. 

It has been estimated that three children in an average sized classroom will have a mental health problem, reaching epidemic levels. Credit: NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A big part to play

Charities across Wales are calling on the government to provide better support for children in schools and make mental health a key part of the national curriculum. Mind Cymru did a survey of 3,000 children, aged between 11-19, asking about mental health support in their schools. They found that 44% didn’t find the support at school helpful, 56% wouldn’t feel confident approaching teachers or other staff and 48% wouldn’t know where to go to get support in school. 

Emily Graham, the senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, says: “Schools are a key part of life for most children and young people, and have a big role to play when it comes to mental health for both students and staff. The educational system must focus on more than academic achievement and value everyone’s mental health and wellbeing.”

She continued that the survey made it clear that more needs to be done by schools to ensure all young people get the support they need. 

This is important when considering poverty, as an article published by BJPsych International found that people with mental health problems are at increased risk of economic hardship. They are more likely to be in debt, have limited education and have limited access to services. 

Poverty levels have also increased due to the UK government’s austerity measures, placing pressure on families and allowing youth services operated by local authorities to suffer. 

What are the Welsh government doing?

The Welsh Children, Young People and Education committee published their Mind over Matter report in April 2018 on the mental health of young people, explicitly stating what framework needs to be put into place to help tackle the growing crisis. 

“The educational system must focus on more than academic achievement and value everyone’s mental health and wellbeing.”

They have also recently started to investigate the wellbeing of children, the support being offered to them in schools and whether barriers to accessing support has increased as part of their inquiry into education otherwise than at school. The committee recently published the responses to their consultation, but the investigation is ongoing to improve services. 

As a response to their original report the Welsh government announced they will be adding an extra £7.1m to their current budget (£650m) that will go towards mental health provisions. This now aligns more with their budget towards physical health, showing things are moving in a positive direction.

The extra money is going towards enforcing their ‘whole school’ approach to mental health. Announced in 2018, the aim is for schools to put mental health and wellbeing at the centre of schools’ ethos, hoping to be an effective method of prevention and early intervention. 

Below is a video with a proposed action plan for schools in Wales that could be used to help tackle the crisis:

If the increased budget is being used towards better support for children using a strategic action plan then hopefully progress will be made. This will lead to reduced pressure on CAMHS and less children feeling as if they’ve been failed, like Olivia. It will also decrease the risk of children facing economic hardship later in life due to their mental health problems because they would be more likely to get better support. 

However, schools ultimately need to step into their role within the mental health crisis in young children and start working towards creating a better future.