MY daughter comes home from school with a tale of woe almost every week. The issues her class-mates face would tax any adult. There is one girl who is in knots about her sexuality. Another who has tried to cut her own wrists because her home life is chaotic. And a boy with learning difficulties who once opted to lie down in the middle of the road to wait for a truck to run over him.
This is at primary school. If these days children as young as 10 and 11 are struggling with problems which deeply affect their mental health, I can’t imagine what the teenagers at my son’s secondary school are going through. I ask Lizzie what the teachers do when they hear her class-mates talking about suicide. She says that they don’t do anything, really. What can any teacher in this kind of situation do?
This a challenge which is taxing the Prime Minister, who earlier this year announced plans to transform public attitudes to mental health, with a specific focus on children and young people. Her idea is to develop better links between schools and NHS specialist staff and provide what is being described as “mental health first aid training” for every secondary school.
It is also taxing researchers, who have questioned a representative sample of more than 1,000 UK-based 11 to 16-year-olds for the BBC’s School Report junior news initiative. Almost three-quarters (70 per cent) said they had experienced one or more negative feelings in the past year, ranging from feeling generally upset and unhappy to severe attacks of fear and anxiety.
Around the same proportion of teachers (73 per cent) said they would often or occasionally be so concerned about a particular pupil’s wellbeing that they would worry about them after school hours. Tellingly, more than a third of these teachers have had no training on how to deal with mental health issues. What’s more, a quarter said they would not know how or when to refer a young person in distress for help.
Of course, the big question is whether mental health awareness should be part of a teacher’s job description in any case? From my own experience of working as a university lecturer, I’d say yes, with some caveats. I counselled informally a number of students who were finding it difficult to cope with the pressures, not just of university work but in establishing a secure identity for themselves and forming good relationships with others. Although I was always willing to give my time freely to individuals who needed someone to talk to, I was also aware that I was entirely unqualified to do so.
More than once, I drove home wondering if I had said – or done – the right thing. Would my advice have had a counter-productive effect? Could it even be dangerous? And these were young adults I was dealing with, not vulnerable children and teenagers.
That’s just one of the reasons why I would say that any moves to educate those who educate our children must be instigated carefully. Diagnosing serious mental health issues, especially in young people who might not even have the language to describe exactly how they feel, is demanding. That’s why “official” mental health workers spend so long in training and are required to refresh their skills on a regular basis. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect all teachers – already under enough pressure to improve school standards – to take all of this on board too. Some may be suited to the role, others may not.
As a parent, I’d like to see a designated mental health specialist in every school. Ideally, this would be a member of the teaching staff identified by the head teacher and governing body to possess a particular aptitude. Each teacher in the school would also be trained in spotting the signs in pupils which might require early intervention.
This element, although costly and time-consuming, should be relatively easy to put into place. What happens next is the biggest challenge. Accessing the correct professional advice and care for an individual in distress can be an absolute minefield. Over-worked GPs are often all too quick to hand out anti-depressants without too much concern for underlying causes. In some areas, there are simply no resources to turn to. National groups and helplines are already overwhelmed with those who need advice.
Adult mental health services are underfunded enough. Those which specifically deal with children and young people are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to any kind of NHS cash. There are some admirable voluntary organisations which offer excellent counselling, but waiting lists to access these can stretch to months, if not years.
Even if every school in the land had an exemplary mental health specialist in place, it wouldn’t be enough. The whole system needs bringing out of the shadows, given funding priority and sources of support made clear. If the Prime Minster is serious about helping the thousands of children and young people who need it, she must realise that fragile mental health is a condition which cannot be cured by teachers alone.