We are Jeopardising the Mental Health of Future Generations (Part 1)

Today is World Mental Health Day. As a teacher I am aware of some of the challenges that many young people have to face. However, teachers often only get a glimpse of what a pupil is thinking or feeling.

My mum has spent 14 years as a counsellor in a large number of state and private schools. She has had a huge influence on my view of education and the importance of young people’s mental wellbeing. She is passionate about the right of every child and adolescent to have access to counselling within the safe and known environment of school.

I asked her to put down some thoughts about the support we offer young people in schools. She has written an account on the power of good counselling, the shocking rise in child mental health problems and the ongoing underfunding of mental health services.

This is the first post of two. The second part can be found here.

The world is a tough place and too often young people’s voices are not truly heard, they can be coping on a daily basis with all kinds of abuse and pressures in all aspects of their lives which can lead to feelings of powerlessness and a lack of self-worth. On top of this, an adolescent has to cope with physical and mental development, changing relationships with family, questions of identity, social media, as well as academic and peer pressures, to name but a few.

Given time and space in counselling, young people can drop their defence mechanisms and begin to explore their problems, make choices, find strategies to cope and ultimately feel better about themselves as well as improve relationships with others (Mick Cooper’s 2013 report into schools-based counselling found that 80% of pupils found school counselling helpful).

Even pre-school children who start to display emotional and behavioural difficulties can benefit from an early intervention with counselling and play therapy and by the counsellor facilitating support for the parents and carers.  I believe if there was more primary school counselling available many of the problems that become evident and arise at transition to secondary could be avoided.

However, I have become concerned over recent years about the percentage that are not helped by counselling and whose often complex longstanding needs are not being met.  I believe this minority is growing with the marked deterioration in the mental health of children and young people in both the state and private sectors.

There has been a gradual disintegration of support services such as CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services), as well as the disappearance or severe reduction of many other support systems and agencies largely due to the government withdrawing funds.  

CAMHS have suffered budget cuts of £85 million since 2010 and gone also are many social workers, support programmes for parents, educational psychologists and targeted mental health services within schools.  It has become increasingly difficult for schools and counsellors to refer pupils on to CAMHS as the waiting lists become longer and longer and the ‘threshold’ for referral is continually raised.   In many parts of the UK priority cases wait months for an initial assessment and in some cases schools are advising pupils and their parents in crisis to present at A&E where the mental health team is obliged to give some immediate psychological support.

According to the charity Young Minds, 3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental illness.   Hospitalisations from self-harm and eating disorders have doubled in the past 3 years, and in some parts of the country rates of childhood depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicide attempts are up 600%.

As the rise of mental health issues in young people continue, the need for counsellors in schools increases. However, faced with budget cuts, many schools are identifying counselling services as the first thing to go despite most schools seeing the clear benefits of having an experienced counsellor for pupils and for the whole school (an emotionally happy and healthy child is much more likely to engage in class and reach their full potential).

Natasha Devon, the Department for Education’s independent children’s mental health Tsar was sacked recently, seemingly for being frank about the breakdown of children’s mental health and services. She considers the main causes of the children’s mental health crisis to be poverty, academic pressure, lack of quality family time, cuts in CAMHS as well as the pressures of social media.  

I would agree with the above but would add that many children from every socio-economic group are also coping, in the first instance, with difficult family relationships including domestic violence; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; parental separation and illness; and addiction in the family.

The added stresses of transition from primary to secondary school, adolescence, social media and academic pressure can increase mental health issues, where there are already existing problems.   Contrary to the belief of many, these issues affect not just those from more deprived backgrounds.  Privately educated pupils often have to cope with excessive pressures, for example, as they recognise the huge financial sacrifice some of their parents have made. It is very easy with so many agendas at stake for the emotional wellbeing of the pupils to be unintentionally neglected.

There is a real danger that a large number of young people with severe behavioural and mental health issues will increasingly fail to get the support they need. If supporting agencies  fail to act adequately after a disclosure of sexual or physical abuse, the child can often be left in an even more unsafe situation.

There are complex reasons behind these failures, including not only the overstretched children’s services and mental health teams but the pressures on teachers who may resent the increasing time they must spend acting as social workers.  In such cases they can find themselves fending off abusive parents and trying to get in contact with elusive children’s agencies. Often, the child’s voice is the one least heard.

After the Rotherham Inquiry and a 2013 Inquiry by the Children’s Commissioner into Child Exploitation in Gangs and Groups it was discovered that many of these children had initially suffered sexual abuse within the family.  The OCC (Office of the Children’s Commissioner) commissioned a Rapid Evidence Assessment into Child Sexual Abuse in the family environment (It’s a Lonely Journey). This showed that 1 in 20 children in the UK had been sexually abused and 90% of them by family or a close family friend.  

Some agencies working with victims of intra-familial child sexual abuse place this figure much higher. Of the 43,000 children in the UK who are subject to a child protection plan at any given time, only around 5% are on a plan for sexual abuse.  The NSPCC estimates that one in three children who suffer sexual abuse never tell anyone and yet we know as a result that damaging behaviours and severe mental health issues, often beginning in school, can last a life time if not tackled as early as possible.

We have made some progress by recognising and highlighting historic sexual abuse in institutions and the abuse by celebrities and other people of influence. However, it is still a taboo area when it comes to the 90% who are sexually abused by family or someone known to a victim.

Although lessons in Protective Behaviours within school can be useful as far as they go, children often see the potential abuser as being a stranger or on social media and don’t connect sexual abuse within the family as abuse, or if they do they are confused by very mixed emotions and loyalties. If children do have the courage to disclose they are too often let down by the very agencies there to protect them, who fail to communicate properly with each other and this can further endanger the child.  

Although realising this area is complex and sensitive, there seems to be a real reluctance from many counsellors, schools, health professionals and government to begin to address these issues despite the above statistics and revelations. But until we stop being in denial about this problem and start investing resources and money into this difficult area, I believe we continue to let down a great number of children and are jeopardising the mental health, education and lives of a significant number of the future generation.

This is the first part of two posts. The second part can be found here.

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