Mental Health in Young People: Are Schools Getting the Help They Need?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 21 January 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Recent media reports reflect the fact that the mental health of young people is of increasing concern. How are we coping with this rising demand and are we addressing pupil pastoral needs as well as we did before budget cuts changed staffing profiles and timetable priorities? Equally in their efforts to help a growing number of young people in this type of difficulty, are schools getting the support required from the mental health agencies in a timely, coordinated way?

The current national conversation about apparent rising levels of mental health problems and how to address them has generated a government response to the green paper, Children and Young Persons Mental Health.

The big idea to address the issue is that pilot support teams will be set up in some schools and colleges, made up of people from the NHS, schools, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to address mental health issues in pupils beginning in January 2019. It is proposed that the Mental Health Support Teams (MHST), will treat pupils with mild to moderate mental health issues in school, and will help children and young people with more severe needs to access the right support and provide a link to specialist NHS services.

In addition, designated senior leads for mental health in schools will be appointed, likely to be an existing member of staff, to take a strategic overview of the institution’s approach to mental health and wellbeing, including how to support staff mental health and wellbeing, as well as that of pupils. To train teachers in these new responsibilities a number of higher education institutions in England will offer Education Mental Health Practitioner courses from January, with the first teams working in trailblazer areas from the end of 2019.

Reaction to these plans has been mixed. NAHT feel that the role of the new Designated Mental Health Leads in schools is not that of a mental health professional, and teachers and school leaders should not be involved in the diagnosis or treatment of mental health conditions. Deciding on the level of risk to a pupil presenting with worrying behaviours is a very difficult responsibility which has no room for error. Experience as a school leader would have taught me to always seek expert medical advice in such cases and to share the responsibility of how best to proceed. Certainly, pastoral staff will be an essential point of contact and safety net from whom pupils can seek help in the first instance, but even with extra training, they cannot be a substitute for a medically qualified, experienced psychologist. Nonetheless, NAHT has welcomed the Government’s commitment to high quality, funded training.

Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), has called on the Government to act now to support struggling mental health teams. He agrees that there is high demand for mental health support in schools and that additional investment in support staff in this sector is a move that is welcome. He points out, however, that it takes a number of teams working collaboratively and inclusively to provide patients with the best possible outcomes. He feels that more resources are needed to support the integration of child health, primary care and other agencies within a local child and adolescent mental health system. He agrees that we need all professionals who work with children and young people to be trained in mental health so they can identify problems at the earliest opportunity. This means existing services are struggling to cope with more demand and as with so many of the social care needs in our country today, it is inadequate funding that is at the core of the problem. This response from government seems to be trying to put more responsibility on schools to solve the problem rather than face the difficult political reality that, as a society, we will have to pay more taxes to properly fund the NHS. As with the demands of our ageing population, our lifestyle and social behaviours are generating new mental health pressures on the NHS and we will have to adjust to cope with them politically and economically.

Here in Northern Ireland, a report by the Children’s Commissioner in September stated that insufficient resources are only partly to blame for the “glacial pace of reform”.

Ms Yiasouma said: "I have found the system wanting in areas such as lengthy waiting times and the high proportion of children not being accepted to specialist services.

"(There are also) problems with access to services for children with learning difficulties, or drug and alcohol issues, unacceptable failings in the care of children in mental health crises, and reliance on the use of medication to treat mental ill health.”

BBC N Ireland’s Talkback recently highlighted the case of a County Down woman who fears she will lose her daughter to suicide and who has said she believes young people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland are being failed:

So we have three interconnected pressures producing this crisis - changes in the life experience and pressures on young people leading to this spike in demand for help, reduced budgets in schools leading to shrinkage of time for individual pupil pastoral care and lack of sufficient funding to provide an expanded child mental health service.

In the green paper, the Education Secretary has also published new plans to make sure all schools teach children about good physical and mental health, how to stay safe on and offline, and the importance of healthy relationships. This is certainly a useful avenue for schools to explore but asking teachers without particular training in pastoral work and the delivery of effective personal and social education is not going to solve the problem alone. Targeting the funding to provide updated training and resources in the pastoral curriculum will get effective messages and advice to a wider pupil audience. Once again, proper funding for schools is essential to allow them to provide the pastoral time and staffing to be there for pupils when help is needed.


Note: Legal Island is running a Northern Ireland Education Law Update 2019 conference on Thursday 21st March (9:20am -2:00pm). Sessions cover for difficult topics that many school leaders face - Grievances and actions to frustrate the process; Stress, Grievances and Alternatives; Alcohol problems; and Parental complaints.


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This article is correct at 21/01/2019

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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