Every school needs a mental health professional
The Government has taken vital steps to improve mental health services in our schools, but more needs to be done to keep pace with the size of the challenge.
This week marks Children’s Mental Health Week. We often don’t speak about the impact of the Covid pandemic and various lockdowns on the wellbeing of our children. As a parent myself I witnessed the effect of the crisis on my family. Those of us like me with disabled children will have experienced even more acute effects.
We have seen incredibly worrying trends for children and young people; twenty per cent of those aged seven to sixteen years old will be battling a likely mental health disorder. This has risen significantly from twelve per cent in 2017, placing unprecedented pressures on the NHS’s children’s mental health services.
Combined with a school absence crisis that is rife across the country, we face a situation where nearly half a million children are struggling with a mental health problem and many of them will have to wait up to five years to receive the treatment they need, due to the postcode lottery embedded in our system.
As adults, many of us will have experienced, or know friends or family members who have struggled with, mental health issues. We know just how frightening it can be and how the simple act of talking to someone can often help. It is difficult to imagine just how scary and distressing it must be for a child or young person suffering from similar issues.
The consequences of failing to address a mental health issue for a young person can be severe. It is likely to have lasting effects that will stay with them as they move into their adulthood, preventing their ability to live a peaceful and fulfilled life. More must be done earlier in their lives to help our struggling children.
Crucially, the nation’s mental health crisis is playing out in our schools with record-low levels of attendance in primary and secondary schools. The most recent statistics for a full year show 22.5% of pupils were persistently absent, missing ten per cent or more of school lessons. Research also shows a clear link between absenteeism and attainment, with eighty four per cent of Key Stage 2 pupils who had one hundred per cent attendance achieved the expected standard, compared to forty per cent of pupils who were persistently absent during this period.
Why are we seeing a school absence crisis like never before? There is a direct link between poor mental health and school absence. The charity Mind found that seven in ten young people say that they had been absent from school as a result of struggling with mental health. Moreover, only one in four children were able to claim an authorised absence from school when complaining of a mental health-related problem, due to a lack of medical evidence to prove their struggles. Not only are these young people struggling with their attendance, they face the risk of unauthorised absence and their families may face fines.
It is clear that our current mental health provisions for young people are insufficient and we have been unable to keep up with the rising demand.
In recent years, we have made significant progress in recognising the challenge of mental health in children and young people. Our NHS, teachers, guardians and many great charities (Kooth, Papyrus, YoungMinds) have been instrumental in raising awareness of the pressures faced by young people and are providing mental health support to more children than ever before.
The Government has recognised the importance of this and has taken vital steps to improve mental health provision in schools. With the rollout of Mental Health Support Teams, as of March 2023, there were 398 teams covering forty seven per cent of secondary school pupils. It is estimated that 600 teams will cover secondary schools in England by 2025. While this progress is welcome, funding is only guaranteed until next year, and the rollout is arguably too slow to keep up with the increasing numbers of mental health issues.
Many schools in my own constituency of South Swindon will have taken part in ‘Time to Talk Day’ on 1 February, where children were encouraged to open up about their feelings. While breaking down the stigma of mental health as part of the school curriculum is a good thing, quite often, children do not have access to a qualified mental health professional.
I believe that our Government should take the promise of introducing Mental Health Support Teams into secondary schools further and place a qualified mental health professional in every primary and secondary school. With record school absences, pupils absent from school may well have the confidence of returning to the classroom, knowing that a trained mental-health professional is on site for a friendly chat. This also creates a robust link between schools and children’s mental health services, allowing timely diagnosis and the access to appropriate treatment.
Protecting our children’s well-being and mental health is of the utmost importance to supporting the next generation. Every child, no matter where they come from or what school they attend, should be able to access reliable and appropriate mental health treatment. Not only that but we must overcome the crisis in school absences to ensure that our young people are able to receive the education they deserve and are given the means to reach their full potential.
Better mental health provision in schools is key to solving the schools absence crisis, and their wellbeing and mental health is crucial in protecting the next generations.
Robert Buckland is the Conservative MP for South Swindon.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.