A survey of headteachers, the first of its kind, has found significant gaps in the “critical” treatment of their pupils’ mental health needs.
The survey, conducted by the CentreForum thinktank’s mental health commission, found that headteachers at more than half of schools in England believe the referral system for sending their pupils to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) is not working. Experts say it is vital to identify pupils who need support with mental health issues early on.
“The results of this survey suggest schools and young people are often let down and left to fend for themselves,” said Paul Burstow MP, chair of the commission, who warned that, on average, about three children in every classroom would experience mental health problems. “With a price tag of up to £60,000 per child per year, the life-long impact of mental illness on young people and their families is something we can’t afford to ignore.”
Demand for mental health services among the young is increasing. Economic pressures, parental separation and the impact of social media are all cited by headteachers as factors behind the rise in behavioural and emotional problems among pupils.
But when schools in England do refer pupils to mental health services because their needs are considered too complex to be managed “inhouse”, more than half, 54%, report that the referral system is ineffective.
The findings confirm concerns raised in the commission’s final report, published earlier this year, which concluded: “Schools cannot be expected to do it all, yet many health teachers are feeling unsupported by Camhs. It appears the relationship betweeen schools and Camhs is flawed in some areas or the country in terms of access, communication and follow up.”
Experts described the survey as a wake-up call.
“The findings from this report are both important and timely,” said Professor Dame Sue Bailey, chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition. “School is a critical environment where young people should be able to flourish across all domains of their lives. The gaps and concerns this report so clearly identifies reinforce the need to provide young people with the help, support and self-empowerment to develop and maintain resilience to stay mentally healthy in order to achieve and develop to their full potential.”
The CentreForum survey found that only 47% of schools use screening tools, such as psychological questionnaires, to identify the severity of mental health needs among their pupils.
This is despite the fact that such tools are now routinely used to help young people who enter the youth justice system. More than eight out of ten schools that use the tools say they are effective.
Mental health, especially among the young, is recognised as a neglected area. The government has established a taskforce to examine child and adolescent mental health, but many politicians are concerned it remains one of the NHS’s “Cinderella” services.
“Schools would never ignore a child with a physical health problem, so the same should be true of mental ill-health too,” said Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. “Early intervention is crucial in tackling mental health problems, which is why school leaders have a major role to play.”
Burstow said that ensuring schools and mental health services worked more efficiently to help pupils would bring major benefits.
“The first signs of lifelong mental illness can be traced back to childhood for half of those with mental health problems,” Burstow said. “Early identification and access to the right treatment needs effective collaboration between schools and child and adolescent mental health services.
“By scaling up what works, we can transform the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children and reduce the costs to society of low educational attainment, negative behaviour, worklessness, crime, and antisocial behaviour.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian, 11 January2015.