Working in education for the past fifteen years has meant I have come across children from all walks of life who have sometimes had to endure some of the most extreme situations a young person should endure. Especially when I worked in a PRU (pupil referral unit) in London with children who were on bail for some potentially horrific crimes. I found these students to be lost and struggling with mental health. Almost like they had to grow up far too quickly to be able to survive. Growing up too quickly physically and mentally and were not allowed to be the young carefree children they were meant to be.
Within my practice today I always preach about finding the micro positives in life because we all have them, however these children were constantly on high alert with their brains being highjacked by their amygdala's that they couldn't even notice a friendly smile on a teachers face, or why she was acting silly to try and make them laugh. These children couldn't remember to find any positives in life because they were constantly in that fight or flight part of the brain. Did they receive the support they truly needed?
Zip into the future by about 10 years and I've been teaching in York schools. I feel there is a complete crisis within schools for mental health even for staff. In one school I worked in, mental health support for the staff consisted of a yearly bag of chocolates and a colouring book. Students are constantly pushed onto the pastoral team who are overworked and more often than not, not always specifically trained in mental health and so students are missing valuable learning and support when needed most. Developing mental health in children and young people is about supporting them to be self-aware enough to find wellbeing strategies that help them develop positive mental health, to enable them to become more resilient and therefore equipping them for future life. England is all about treating the problem and not preventing the problem in my opinion and even then, budgets do not allow dedicated care.
This lack of strategies for mental health has been exacerbated by COVID-19, time away from school and lockdowns making mental health problems rise in children and young people from 1-10 in to 1-6 in 2020. Referral's to CAMHS are at an all-time high with over 90,000 children and young people being referred in March 22.
It’s no surprise that the percentage of children absentees across state schools has risen since covid and applications to 'Mind' and CAHMS are at an all-time sky high.
Quite rightly, campaigns like Children’s Mental Health Week and Mental Health Awareness Day have helped to reduce the negative stigma that once shrouded mental illness. Thankfully, more children, young people, and adults are now finding the help that they need.
Due to changes with Ofsted, schools now include emotional and wellbeing of students within their frameworks, however are students just putting pen to paper instead of physically practising these important life skills? In my opinion as an educator and therapist-yes.
Every time I teach in mainstream schools, I see students struggling to sit down for 5 hours a day being lectured at, so how is adding another lesson on mental health and wellbeing going to make a difference? And are these mental health and wellbeing lessons targeting students with ADHD or autism? Again, in my opinion no. It’s hard enough to fit these 'holistic' subjects around core subjects, so are they getting the proper dedicated time they need?
Schools regularly report on a regular basis that they think mental health issues in students are getting worse especially when they reach the crucial exam years.
In addition to this we have seen in the news that mental health care is failing those who need it most and a report by NHS England has shown that many of these young people with mental health issues being referred receive no help at all.
The best way to prevent children’s mental health increasing into adulthood is for schools to spot and prevent early signs, as most children spend most of their time at school. An interesting read; ‘The teenage brain’, by Dr Frances E. Jensen.
Schools can act not only as a protective factor to prevent the onset of mental health problems, they can also become a wellbeing intervention by embedding a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing. This change needs to happen in all schools and for it to not only be a box ticking activity to please Ofsted, but a standard way of school life, so we produce emotionally resilient balanced young people.