General Election 2019 - New Focus on Mental Health in Young People

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 November 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

Mental Health in young people is suddenly right up there as a national priority in the election campaign as Jeremy Corbyn vows to deliver an £849 million boost for children battling mental health problems if elected.  He has stated that the party will recruit a qualified counsellor for each of England's 3,500 secondary schools, with a network of drop-in hubs providing further support for kids who are struggling.  

The Mirror newspaper reports that the hubs will be set up in every local authority in a bid to ensure nationwide coverage for state school children.  Mr Corbyn told the paper:

"Our society is fuelling mental illness on a huge scale and our young people are not getting the support they need.”

The Liberal Democrats have tried to match this by also announcing that they want to achieve real equality between mental and physical health and have ambitious plans to do so.  Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson has said that focusing on our country’s young people and those who have had a difficult start in life, will provide a solid framework to improving the prospects of those with severe mental ill-health for generations to come.

In addition to the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, the outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May had already flagged up the need to address mental health issues as one of her key legacy priorities. 

So, vital improvements to treatments for mental health conditions amongst teenagers and young adults could now be on the horizon thanks to this newfound urgency from politicians. As a first tangible sign of action a £35 million government-backed research programme was launched on Monday October 7 which aims to give more support to teenagers battling with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.

When you look at current medical advice on NHS websites on causes of and treatment for anxiety in children, it is clear where the information is coming from on which politicians are basing their approaches to this issue.

The type of treatment typically offered will depend on a child's age and the cause of their anxiety, but broadly the NHS standard response falls into three categories;

  1. Firstly, counselling perhaps in a school setting can help a child understand what's making them anxious and allow them to work through the situation.
  2. For cases which do not respond to this is, more specialist talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be tried  that can help a child manage their anxiety by changing the way they think and behave, often delivered by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS ).
  3. Finally, the clinical approach of prescribing anxiety medicines may be employed if the anxiety is severe or doesn't improve after talking therapies. They are usually only prescribed by doctors who specialise in child and adolescent mental health.

Current estimates reveal that what is new is that the scale of the problem is huge.  In the UK, one in eight children of adolescents are thought to be affected by mental health problems and it is estimated that approximately three-quarters of children or young people who experience mental health problems will do so before the age of 24. The new government initiative will, as the NHS website suggests, look at both environmental tensions and inherited genetics to ensure mental health problems are being treated as effectively as possible.  The targeting of the school age demographic is important because at this crucial age the brain is still developing and appropriate intervention can reduce problems (and costs to the NHS) in later adult life.

From a future government’s point of view of course, there is pressure to face both the individual harm and the potential social and financial cost of the deteriorating context in which many of our young people live.  The findings from this research could potentially address many key policy areas and help reduce instances of self harm, anti-social behaviour, substance abuse and low educational attainment which are such a rising cause for concern.

As a former school counsellor myself I am delighted to hear of any plans to increase the level of pastoral care provision in schools but I find it ironic that over the past decades it was not understood that the escalating crisis in school funding and consequent reduction in pastoral time in the school day would quickly take us to this place.

In the 1980s I and many others pastoral care teachers at the time were trained as school counsellors. In my case I took a two-year part-time Diploma in Advanced Studies in Education in School Counselling in The University of Ulster.  Time was built into our teaching timetables to allow us to respond quickly to incidents in school and to provide support for pupils struggling with issues like bullying, bereavement, self harm and anxiety.  Our experience fed into the customising of taught programmes of Personal and Social Education offering more general preventative advice to all pupils in the school and we developed good professional relationships with the local mental health professionals when more serious cases were beyond our skills.

One of the big differences I notice in terms of potential support for teachers now compared to the 1980s are the large number of online resources to help schools address teenage mental health issues.  A good example is STEM 4 – Supporting teenage mental health, which offers really sound practical teaching advice.

They explain anxiety as feeling fearful, causing us to not want to face things or the reverse – to over-check and over-think things. They take the proactive view that anxiety responds really well to psychological treatment, especially Cognitive Behavioural Treatment (CBT), which can include learning to manage the physical symptoms of anxiety through breathing and relaxing exercises as well as identifying the thoughts that make you anxious. A classroom based approach might look at learning about the different types of anxiety; identifying anxious thoughts; setting goals to face fears, one step at a time; breathing and mindfulness activities; learning how to deal with a panic attack and relaxation techniques.

These recent election pledges seem to me to be simply offering to put back in place the common-sense arrangements which schools have always needed to properly support young people.  As I have written time and time again in these articles the short sighted, chronic underfunding of schools and services like CAMHS in recent years has come at a time of rising need for pastoral and professional medical support for children and young people.  

The election campaigns are clearly demonstrating through their arguments of how promises are to be funded, that as a society we need to start making better choices about our social responsibilities toward children and the well being of society at large and be willing to pay for it.

This article is correct at 13/11/2019
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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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