It could easily be a child’s bedroom. In the centre is a large mat, while a selection of dolls and soft toys line the walls. It is hard to believe that this nurture point in Plaistow, east London, aimed at helping children deal with their emotional problems, was once a school staff room.
Youngsters aged five to 11 can drop in three days a week and speak to a trained counsellor from the charity Place2Be. But as well as worries over friendships, bullying or problems at home, headteacher Paul Harris reveals that a growing number of children are suffering from anxiety as a result of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Fortunately, pupils at Curwen primary and its sister school, Kensington primary in Manor Park, can speak to a counsellor before their problems become overwhelming.
Working with 282 primaries and 50 secondaries, the charity provides early intervention support in schools to children who are troubled and unhappy.
The charity is not the only one working with schools. The Art Room charity supports five- to 16-year-olds who are experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties.
There are eight Art Rooms in schools in Oxfordshire, London and Edinburgh, supporting 500 children a week by offering art as therapy to increase their self-esteem, self-confidence and independence.
It is this kind of partnership that Theresa May, the prime minister, said in January that she wanted to see more of. She said then that one of her priorities was children’s mental health, which has long been recognised as in crisis.
Statistics show that one in 10 children – or an average three children in every classroom – has a diagnosable mental health problem, and that 75% of mental illness in adults has its roots in childhood.
The prime minister said, before the election was announced, that she wanted every secondary school to be offered mental health first aid training, as well as new ways introduced to strengthen links between schools and NHS staff alongside more online support services for children and young people. May’s recognition of the crisis in children and adolescent mental health has been welcomed. But headteachers say that cuts of £3bn to school budgets threaten existing in-school care and want mental health funding ringfenced.
“Cash needs to be earmarked for this from health budgets, otherwise we will lose this vital service.”
Celine Bickerdike: ‘Teachers had to believe you had a problem before you could access the school’s services’
Celine Bickerdike, 19, is an apprentice in Leeds and has secured a university place to study history. She has had anxiety and depression since aged 12. But it was five years before she sought professional help.
“There was some school mental health support, but teachers had to believe you had a problem before you could access it. Most of my teachers thought I was OK – one even said that I was stressed because I wasn’t working hard enough. I broke down during my mocks, which was when my history teachers, who I was really close to, told me to go and see a doctor.
“I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to get the grades I needed for university. I was anxious about the future – and failure.
“I didn’t get into the university I wanted and this really took its toll. I felt completely lost. All my friends were at university. I had gone from having a promising future to being on job seeker’s allowance.
“I think initially, my parents didn’t take my mental health problems seriously; they thought it was just ‘hormones’. I’d always been a bit of a worrier so they assumed that my problems were small because of that.
“Nowadays I find it easier to talk to people about my mental health because I’m more confident and don’t doubt my condition as much. People’s conditions should be believed as soon as they develop so that it’s easier to prevent them worsening like mine did.”
This piece was first seen on ‘The Guardian’ May 11 2017.