The Importance of Mental Health in Schools

I have rewritten this a dozen times over — some more emotive and some less, some fact-based and some anecdotal. I came to the conclusion that no matter what I write, it cannot emphasise enough the importance of wellbeing in schools — especially for those institutions and organisations with an infatuation of academic outcomes. 

The reason that people like you or I went into the world of education is to make a difference, and we do. Yet within the educational system itself, there is a top-heavy focus on attainment, progress and outcome measures. This may be understandable, given the pressures of an ever-shrinking world and global workplace that our children will have to contend in later life. It is easily reasoned, measurable, and important, until you understand the larger, widespread problem surrounding mental health in schools and beyond.

And herein lies the problem

Not being a lover of statistics, I loathed putting any in. It seems to somewhat undermine the suffering that is taking place. Yet, without it a clear picture of our national predicament cannot be seen.

  • In early 2016 a snapshot survey by the NAHT of 1455 headteachers in England suggested that two-thirds of primary schools are not equipped to support mental health concerns.
  • In 2016, and then again in 2017, Ofsted released that 90% of primary schools were rated Good or Outstanding.

The evidential gap between standard of school and ability to cope with mental health concerns highlights how the mental wellbeing of pupils is not necessarily high within current educational accountability processes. As such, the mental health of this nation is at constant risk. Without placing a wider emphasis on, and support for schools; depression, anxiety, suicide rates, amongst many other mental health needs, will continue to rise and the effects will further regress our nation.

What will happen to the three quarters of a million?

Mental health is responsible for an increasing epidemic of harm to our youngest members of society. The damage in later life can be life-limiting, life-threatening, irreparable and lead to further generations experiencing the same. For those that are lucky, help is found. For those that are less lucky, they suffer. For those unfortunate, the consequences are incomprehensible.

  • 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of these have not had appropriate interventions at an early age.[1]
  • 1 in 12 young people self-harm at some point in their lives, though there is evidence that this could be a lot higher. Girls are more likely to self-harm than boys.[2]
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people (male and female) in their 20s and early 30s. Hanging preferred by males, poisoning by females. Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides. [3]
  • 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. Many of them are struggling with more than one disorder. [4]
  • Along with the detrimental price to the individual and their families, the long-term cost to the UK economy is £105 billion per year.[5] This is in reaction to what is already being caused.

Based on average annual birth rate (2004-2014) of 780,445

The above does not take into account those that are yet to show signs and symptoms or the ever-increasing migrant trend. Only last week, I had a young boy join us, separated from his family, who walked to the UK from Afghanistan; his story was unimaginable, but his needs were no less.

The UK is currently looking at over 772,000 individuals with mental health problems of whom schools feel that they are not equipped to provide support for. 772,000 is a number greater than the entire population of Leeds or 61 times the full capacity of Wembley Arena.

The darkness…

The following assertions can be made regarding the current status of our education system:

  • The pressures on schools is unforgiving — for outcomes, not happiness or feeling whole.
  • Schools are in need of further training on developing good mental health and access to better services (as stated before two-thirds of heads are leading schools that are ‘not equipped’).
  • Referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Service (EWHMS) are inundated — requests made by schools are either lower than the threshold or have waiting times. It was uncovered in 2016 that the median of the maximum waiting times for all providers was 26 weeks for a first appointment and nearly ten months for the start of treatment.[6]
  • Therefore, schools need to provide further support and care for those vulnerable with mental health needs that they are unsure of, diagnosed or not, to fill the void and ever-growing need for underfunded public sector systems (as only 0.7% of current national expenditure is on mental health).[7]
  • Without a greater emphasis on ensuring that the children are mentally well and resilient, life outcomes will not improve.
  • If schools do not meet the needs of individuals with mental health problems, regardless of the increasing academic outcomes at school, these issues may well manifest and effect later life.
  • The effects of which will have emotional impact on the next generation, which according to current trends, is still growing in number.
  • Go back to the start of this list, just add on another 100,000 innocents or so.

… and the trailblazers

Yet there are solutions. My upcoming book is about caring for the most vulnerable in our society and shaping futures — sharing best practice in education and beyond. The light, shining without excuse and without fear, to lead towards further understanding and better outcomes for the whole person. The trailblazers for children’s mental health:

  • School leaders and schools that put every child first and recognise that the mental health and wellbeing of children is as high as, if not higher than, academic achievement.
  • Charities and think tanks that put their Heads Together to increase strength in voice and an understanding of the wider mental health picture.
  • Brave and strong individuals who have survived experiences with mental health who, in sharing, increase the understanding that at times ‘it is ok not to be ok’.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’. He is right, but education in Britain needs to be redefined to meet the needs of the human condition — rather than conditions set by others.

James Hollinsley is the author and editor of An Educator’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools, published by John Catt Educational. He is the head of Longwood Primary Academy in Essex, highly regarded and awarded for its proactive approach to student mental health.

[1] Children’s Society. (2008): The Good Childhood Inquiry: health research evidence. London: Children’s Society.

[2] Brooks, F. (2015): HBSC England National Report 2014. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire.

[3] National Office of Statistics. (December 2017). Statistical bulletin: Suicides in the UK: 2016 registrations. London: National Office of Statistics.

[4] YoungMinds. (2014): Same Old… the experiences of young offenders with mental health needs. London: YoungMinds.

[5] Department of Health. (2016): No health without mental health: A cross-Government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages Supporting document — The economic case for improving efficiency and quality in mental health. London: Department of Health.

[6] Frith, E. (2016): CentreForum Commission on Children and Young People’s Mental Health: State of the Nation. London: CentreForum.

[7] Independent Mental Health Taskforce to the NHS. (2016): The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. London: the Mental Health Taskforce (NHS).

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  1. Ok, I stopped reading once I got to the statement that you went into education ‘to make a difference’. If that’s what you want to do, do it your own way at your own expense, or go and be a social worker or something like that, to make a difference to people who want change in their lives. Some of us want to keep it the same, thankyou very much.

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