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Children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing: moving towards evidence-based, data-driven responses

Policy@Manchester

6 min read Partner content

As children and young people return to classroom education, schools have a vital role to play in assessing and supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Here, Professor Neil Humphrey from the Manchester Institute of Education at The University of Manchester argues that schools should routinely collect reliable mental health and wellbeing data, with which they can ‘build back better’ by setting evidence-based whole-school responses and identifying groups of students in greater need, who may benefit from more targeted forms of support.

  • Schools are key actors who can play a role in identifying and preventing the escalation of emergent mental health difficulties among children and young people.
  • Less than half of schools currently collect any data on students’ mental health and wellbeing. Of those that do, few use validated methods across a wide range of students.
  • School staff should be provided with essential training and tools to provide support for children and young people, and additional funding should be diverted to specialist services to address the decline in children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

In recent years, there has been a significant decline in children and young people’s mental health and, although the full effects are not yet known, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have contributed further to this decline. Mental health difficulties in childhood and adolescence are repeatedly shown to have long-lasting effects, including poorer physical health, higher rates of criminal behaviour, and lower quality of life in adulthood.

In addition to the profound personal consequences, mental health conditions have an adverse economic impact. Higher service utilisation and reduced economic productivity costs around £100 billion per year in England alone. With evidence to suggest that half of adult mental health conditions have their first onset before the age of 14, investing in support during childhood and adolescence should be a key national priority.

The role of schools

School is one of the most significant developmental contexts for children and young people, and teachers are often relied upon to provide pastoral support for them. Teachers view themselves as being on the ‘front line’ in combatting poor mental health among children and young people. This is partly due to cuts to specialist mental health services across the UK over the last decade, which mean that students and parents/carers have to rely on non-specialist allied services, including schools. The government also recognises that schools have a role to play in supporting children and young people’s mental health.

Despite the major role that schools play in supporting children and young people’s mental health, many do not assess the mental health and wellbeing of their students. Of those that do, few use validated methods across whole cohorts. This is problematic because schools cannot respond effectively without reliable data. Additionally, without regular assessment, there is no way for schools to know whether their interventions are making a positive difference for students.

The National Lottery funded HeadStart programme is supporting schools and allied professionals to assess the mental health and wellbeing of their students, and analyse the effectiveness of a range of interventions. Using lessons learnt from the HeadStart project, my colleagues and I will be spending the next three years leading the Greater Manchester Young People’s Wellbeing Programme.

The Greater Manchester Young People’s Wellbeing Programme

The Greater Manchester Young People’s Wellbeing Programme represents a unique opportunity to trigger a step-change in education, such that the assessment system (which currently focuses almost exclusively on academic attainment) is rebalanced to give greater parity to wellbeing and the aspects of young people’s lives that impact upon it.

Over the course of three years, we will survey young people, initially in years 8 and 10, in every participating secondary school across the Greater Manchester city-region. We will collate the data from the surveys and return it to schools via an interactive online dashboard, which will help them to understand the state of their students’ wellbeing (and the things that drive their wellbeing).

The dashboard will allow schools to filter their data by a range of characteristics including sex, age, special educational needs, and free school meal eligibility (and combinations of these characteristics) as a means to identify those groups in greatest need of support, thereby enabling them to target scarce resources more effectively. With each iteration of the survey, schools will be able to monitor their progress over time.

Alongside this, the Child Outcomes Research Consortium will be supporting the Programme to assist schools in implementing positive changes based on the data. In addition, neighbourhood data will be published, enabling a genuinely place-based approach to young people’s mental health in which arts and cultural organisations, youth clubs, sports clubs, businesses, charities and other actors work together to address local needs and priorities.

Policy implications

Even without participating in the Programme, schools can still act to improve their mental health provision. Basic training can help to improve teachers’ ability to support children and young people when they experience mental health difficulties. Senior leadership teams should support training to maximise training gains and create a whole-school approach to mental health provision.

Schools should also adopt tried-and-tested interventions for students, including for example the Bounce Back programme, which we evaluated as part of the HeadStart programme. By making the most of these schemes, they can help to prevent emergent mental health problems from reaching clinical levels. However, schools should ensure that they implement such interventions fully to achieve the best results.  There are numerous online tools that can guide them towards programmes that have an evidence base.

Using a secure monitoring and assessment tool will equip schools to better support students’ mental health and wellbeing and to assess the effectiveness of their efforts. Generation of high-quality, detailed mental health and wellbeing data, presented in an accessible format, with support from external experts to aid interpretation, planning, implementation and review, enables schools, service delivery organisations and policymakers to make data-driven decisions about provision. The Greater Manchester Young People’s Wellbeing Programme uses such an approach, which, in the long term, could be used in all secondary schools across the country.

Finally, although schools do have an important role in supporting children and young people’s mental health, they are not specialist mental health services. Teachers (and other non-specialist allied professionals) report a lack of confidence when trying to support students who are experiencing mental health difficulties. To support children and young people most effectively, the government needs to re-invest in specialist services. The system can then work in tandem, with schools identifying students who require significant additional support and specialist services being able to provide it.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.

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