Government must ‘rocket-boost’ mental health support in schools to tackle crisis

Waiting lists for children’s mental health services are ‘chronic’ and provision is a ‘postcode lottery’, a report has warned.

Waiting lists for children’s mental health services are ‘chronic’ and provision is a ‘postcode lottery’, the report warned
Waiting lists for children’s mental health services are ‘chronic’ and provision is a ‘postcode lottery’, the report warned (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The Government needs to “rocket-boost” wellbeing support in schools to reduce the number of pupils struggling with mental health problems, the former children’s commissioner has said.

Anne Longfield warned half of pupils in England – four million children – will still not have access to Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) in their school under the Government’s plans.

Waiting lists for children’s mental health services are “chronic” and provision is a “postcode lottery”, according to the report from her Centre for Young Lives think tank and the Child of the North.

The report – which warns of a “mental ill health epidemic ravaging schools” – makes a series of recommendations on improving children’s mental health through educational settings.

It calls for more MHSTs in schools across the country and it suggests the work of the teams could be widened to include more peer-to-peer group support for children with milder mental health problems.

The report says the Government should facilitate the roll out of mental health surveys of pupils in each area of the country to take the “emotional temperature” of a school to gauge the resources needed.

It also calls for “one-stop-shop” locally tailored online NHS information hubs to be created to signpost families to mental health support available in their area.

Preliminary data from 5,000 children and young people in Bradford, which was included in the report, found that 18% of 12 to 15-year-olds reported symptoms indicative of a probable eating disorder.

Data from the Born in Bradford Age of Wonder study also found that 17% of 12 to 15-year-olds reported self-harm in the last 12 months, with a higher prevalence in girls (20%) compared to boys (13%).

Ms Longfield, executive chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said: “The rise in the number of children experiencing mental health problems is an ongoing crisis not only for those children and families experiencing it now, but for our country’s future.

“I have heard so many heartbreaking stories of the lengths children and parents have gone to get support – including, sadly, suicide attempts – but we still seem a long way away from providing the prevention, early help, and treatment that every young person with mental health problems needs.

“As an anchor in children’s lives, schools have a crucial role to play in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing.

“Yet half of the school age children in England – four million children – will not have access to Mental Health Support Teams under current plans.

“We need to rocket-boost support in schools if we hope to bring down the numbers of children who are struggling with mental health problems.”

Margaret Mulholland, Send and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It’s deeply frustrating that so many pupils still do not have access to mental health support teams, despite it being seven years since this initiative was set out in the Government’s green paper on children’s mental health.”

She added: “The problem of deteriorating mental health has been recognised for some time, and it’s shameful that so little progress has been made towards addressing it.”

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “Despite the positive step of introducing Mental Health Support Teams, the target of reaching just 50% of schools by 2025 is nowhere near enough.

“Too many children are scared, alone and not getting the support they need.

“I believe we are failing a generation of children, we must do better and ensure no child is left without support.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of providing and protecting vital mental health support to our young people.

“That’s why we have invested an additional £54 million a year since 2019 to expand children and young people’s services across the country, including for eating disorders.

“We are strengthening direct mental health support in schools, with grants available for senior mental health lead training for teachers in every school, and NHS mental health support teams set to cover to at least 50% of schools and colleges by spring 2025.”