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School staff need help tackling child mental health as anxiety among students rises

Teachers are seeing increasing levels of anxiety and a rise in mental health problems among their students but lack the training and time to support young people.

Teacher and student

Eighty two per cent of teachers are seeing anxious pupils and the worsening of existing mental health problems, compared to just one year ago, according to a survey for the Early Intervention Foundation.

Secondary schools and teachers face multiple barriers to better supporting pupils’ mental health – largely due to a lack of qualified staff, insufficient help from other professionals and critically a lack of time, the survey by TeacherTapp for the EIF found.

Donna Molloy OBE, director of policy at the Early Intervention Foundation said: “We know that supporting young people’s mental health is a priority for secondary schools. Now more than ever, it is essential that teachers are adequately trained to support young people in the development of essential life skills, which includes the skills needed to maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

“The evidence is clear that teacher-led support, when delivered to a high level of quality, makes a difference to young people’s mental health outcomes. Young people’s mental health must remain a national priority, and teacher training and dedicated time in the curriculum for focusing on wellbeing are important ways of reducing young people’s mental health issues.”

The survey carried out in August 2022 found:

•             41% of secondary school teachers have received training to support pupils’ mental health in the past 12 months.

•             This is a six-percentage point increase from June 2021, when just 35% of teachers had received training in mental health support.

•             This was unevenly split across seniority, with 64% of headteachers and 54% of senior leaders receiving training, but the same could only be said of 36% of classroom teachers. 

•             In schools rated outstanding by Ofsted, 49% of classroom teachers said they had received mental health training.

•             This compared to 28% in “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate” schools. 

•             82% of secondary school teachers have seen increasing levels of anxiety/depressive symptoms among pupils over the past year, which includes low mood and loss of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed.

•             70% of teachers have seen reduced motivation and engagement among pupils.

•             66% have seen a worsening of existing mental health problems.

Head of Practice at WillisPalmer Lucy Hopkins warns that teachers and school staff have competing priorities of trying to deliver a curriculum, help pupils to ‘catch up’ educationally post-COVID, while helping to identify children who are experiencing mental health problems or where there are safeguarding issues which have undoubtedly arisen since the various lockdowns and children may have been further isolated from any support.

“Teachers and school staff are ideally placed to spot signs of change in their pupils and to identify changes in presentation, emotional wellbeing, and potential issues at home. Since the first lockdown, local authorities have seen an increase in instances of domestic abuse, an escalation in substance misuse problems as people struggled to cope, and parental mental health also suffered. These issues, combined with increasing financial pressures as a result of furlough or job losses, health concerns and isolation resulted in an increase in some children being exposed to these types of issues and suffering significant harm as a result.”

“While schools want to do their best to support their students, and much of this intervention and support has increasingly become the responsibility of school staff, this can mean that they are having to balance providing  pupils with everything they need to learn and develop academically along with assisting them to manage their emotional needs and mental health, the latter sometimes requiring a different type of experience and knowledge that is more akin to social work than teaching,” added Lucy.

Lucy
Lucy Hopkins

The TeacherTapp survey for the EIF came after the former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield warned that the system for supporting children and young people with mental health problems is “buckling under pressure”.

The report by the Commission for Young Lives found “a profound crisis in children and young people's mental health services in England and a system of support that is buckling under pressure, frequently over-medicalised and bureaucratic, unresponsive, outdated, and siloed”.

In October, the Early Intervention Foundation and the Anna Freud Centre will be publishing practical evidence-informed guidance for secondary school teachers to support them in enhancing young people’s mental health and wellbeing through everyday interactions. 

Jaime Smith, Director of the Anna Freud Centre’s Schools Division, says: “Education staff should not be expected to be mental health experts but they are well placed to spot early signs that young people may be struggling. That’s why it’s essential all school staff, no matter their role or stage of their career, have the appropriate training to be able to support their students, and refer on to mental health professionals at the right time. Every school should have a senior mental health lead and embed a whole school approach to mental health.”

The Early Intervention Foundation recommends that the education secretary gives schools the backing needed to provide more effective support to young people facing mental health issues.

Lucy Hopkins added: “As part of the development of the WillisPalmer School Social Work Service we have recently undertaken the first stage of a pilot whereby I was present at a local junior school each week, and the headteacher revealed that she spends at least half her time dealing with safeguarding issues.”

“That is why we have launched the School Social Work Service where an expert social worker is placed in a school one day per week to support schools with a range of issues including providing advice and consultancy around issues such as child mental health, parental mental health, domestic abuse, or substance misuse problems, and all of those issues that children may be experiencing at home that are subsequently impacting on them at school and affecting their ability to fully engage with learning” said Lucy.

“With so much pressure academically, schools cannot be expected to tackle societal problems without vital support, and with a large number of independent social workers at WillisPalmer we have the skills and experience to be able to help,” concluded Lucy.

For more information on the School Social Work Service visit the website.

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