The mental health and wellbeing of school and university students in the UK is one of the biggest issues currently facing our education system. But what’s really going on?
Mental health and wellbeing is a huge issue, and can refer to any number of different cases. It can cover anything from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and self-harm, and can arise from insecurity, self-esteem issues, peer pressure, the social and physical changes that accompany puberty, the results of bullying, or a difficult home life – or numerous other causes.
Although in recent years, we as a society have become increasingly aware of and sensitive towards mental health problems, they are still widely misunderstood, and identifying, addressing and talking about them is still a major challenge.
We have helped students address some of these issues through the Minerva Mentor programme, but schools, universities, GPs and professional treatment can all have a positive impact on a young person suffering with mental health problems.
How bad is the problem?
A recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report summarised the problem as follows:
‘There is a crisis affecting children and young people’s mental health in England, with three children in every classroom experiencing a clinically diagnosable condition. Despite the growing number who require help, cuts to the funding of both NHS and local authority ‘early intervention’ services, which can prevent emerging mental health problems from escalating further, mean that increasing numbers of children are unable to access appropriate and timely support.’
The government has promised £1.4bn for mental health services for children and young people up to 2020, but the think-tank said too little was being spent on school-based provision despite evidence of growing need and the benefits of early intervention. The study said secondary schools were well-placed to play a central role in improving children’s mental health because, while children might only see their GP once or twice each year, they were in school for 200 days a year.
According to the IPPR report, three children in every class have a clinically diagnosable mental health condition; 90% of headteachers have reported an increase in mental health problems among pupils over the last five years, and over the same period, hospital admissions for self-harm among the under-18s are up 50%.
A survey of 300 GPs in England has raised particular concern about the availability of NHS help for children aged 11-18 who are self-harming. While 61% of GPs are seeing more such cases than five years ago, 83% describe treatment services as either inadequate or totally inadequate. Most GPs think mental health services for young people are inadequate, with nine in 10 fearing that children in their care could come to harm while waiting for specialist treatment.
The message is simple: an increase in demand coupled with NHS cuts means the supply of mental health treatment for young people is in no way keeping up with demand.
The story is much the same at universities; compared to just three or five years ago (encompassing the period when tuition fees increased three-fold), many universities have seen a 40%+ increase in the number of students seeking out the counselling service, with that figure rising to 75% in the most extreme cases.
What are the causes?
It is highly likely that one significant cause in this sudden and significant increase is simply greater awareness. Schools, universities, students, parents and medical professionals have all become increasingly aware of mental health issues as being integral to overall well-being, and so those suffering with them are more likely to identify them, and seek help. Even if the current system is unable to keep up, this greater awareness and gradual de-stigmatisation can only be seen as a positive.
However, this greater awareness does not change the fact that our mental health is also, empirically, undeniably, getting worse. It has been argued that the nature, culture and structure of the British education system is not helping. Natasha Devon, the former mental health champion for schools (who had her role axed in May after criticising government policy, but still sits on the government mental health steering group), was blunt in her assessment of why mental health has become such a major issue in British schools:
“Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health,” she said, alluding to the fact we currently have exams at 4+, 7+, 8+, 9+, 11+, 13+, GCSE, AS and A-level – depending on which system you’re operating in.
“At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”
Devon’s criticism went beyond mental health in the classroom. In a column for the Times Educational Supplement she also accused the government of engineering “a social climate where it’s really difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health”. She continued, parents “work every hour God sends”, which reduces quality family time, while spiralling poverty had pushed a million young people into dependence on food banks.
What can you do?
If you think your child is suffering from mental health problems, or you have noticed a significant change in their behaviour, the most important thing you can do is talk to them. Often, this won’t be an easy conversation. Opening up about painful or unpleasant feelings can be truly terrifying, especially if it is accompanied by feelings that you have done something wrong, or that your parents may not understand, or may be angry, or may blame themselves. This can lead children to internalise their issues and act out in other ways, that are usually more damaging and unhealthy than opening up. You can direct them to charities that specialise in the mental health of young people, such as Young Minds, the Children’s Society and the Mental Health Foundation, where they can seek out independent help and advice. There are also companies that specialise in specific areas, such as B-eat, a charity that helps those suffering from eating disorders.
A child’s school should also be on hand to offer help, advice and guidance, and is well-placed to intervene, as they see children every day, unlike GPs who may only see them once or twice a year. The IPPR report suggests that every secondary school should have a mental health expert on site at least one day a week to help deal with the increase in demand from students. But given the current education funding crisis, this may be some while off. A greater emphasis in schools on mental-health literacy, which has proven extremely effective in giving students the tools to recognise their issues, would also be greatly beneficial. However, it is perhaps not too surprising that in the current climate, part of the mental health burden is falling on the supplementary education industry, as schools, universities and the NHS simply cannot keep up.
At Minerva, we have been running the Minerva Mentor programme, and parents have told us what a positive effect it has had on their children. Whether they have been suffering with anxiety, insecurity or self-confidence issues, spending time with a positive adult influence who is neither parent nor teacher, and can provide a neutral space to discuss issues which may be much harder to open up about with more of an authority figure, can be extremely beneficial. It is not equivalent to seeking professional psychological help – such as therapy or counselling – but can help a child’s personal development through more casual and experiential means.
Find out more here:
Former mental health champion for schools Natasha Devon attacks government approach – Times Education Supplement