Protecting students’ mental health – How one MAT took on the challenge
“Mental health in teenagers is an explosion waiting to happen; it’s frightening”
- by Kate Davies
Secondary schools today are a world apart from those of a generation ago. The pace of change is relentless and with the advent of social media, we are all expected to live perfectly filtered lives. All this is directly impacting on young people, who are suffering more than ever from depression and anxiety.
In fact, one in 10 young people suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition – yet 70 per cent haven’t had enough intervention. And as educators, we’re acutely aware that more than half of all mental illness starts before the age of 14 and 75% by 18.
Barnsley, where I teach, has higher levels of self-harm and substance misuse than the national average – a study of Year 9 children in six Barnsley schools found that 24% said they were depressed most days and 29% had harmed themselves as a result of feeling stressed or anxious.
I see first hand every day how mental health conditions can affect young people. I know that poor mental health in childhood invariably means poor mental health for life, putting an individual at higher risk of dropping out of education, unemployment, criminal activity and social isolation.
Yet traditional mental health services have long waiting lists, rising demand and insufficient capacity. Concern about this has prompted the Wellspring Academy Trust, a multi academy trust which excels in this field, to create a dedicated MindSpace programme to help young people.
It’s a unique scheme which enables mental health services, the NHS, schools and local authorities to work together. All ten secondary schools in Barnsley, regardless of whether they’re managed by the LEA or run as academies by MATs, are involved. Barnsley Clinical Commission Group is funding the £1.3m scheme.
Darton College has been one of the first schools to take part in MindSpace and we can already see the benefits. Indeed, it’s one of the most successful things we have done in the last year.
Schools now face unprecedented levels of accountability; and the pressure that is felt by SLTs and teachers undoubtedly permeates through, putting pressure on children and young people in turn.
It starts at primary school with the Year 6 SATS, whereby schools and school leaders are held to account for the performance of children on a particular day in a particular subject. Schools are judged on a very narrow data set and the youngsters’ mental wellbeing is not considered at all.
When they progress to secondary school, students are, rightly, all expected to achieve their potential – but this expectation is based on their results at the end of Key Stage 2, so what they achieve at Y6 is supposed to form the basis of them getting grade X at Y11.
However, the correlation is rarely that simple. There are significant changes that take place for young people from when they leave primary school at 11 to when they do their GCSEs at 16; anything can happen to them and their families during those years.
A ticking time bomb
Mental health in teenagers is an explosion waiting to happen; it’s frightening. Children who have emotional stress or mental health issues at primary are often well supported, largely because of the school size and its overall organisation. Pupils tend to have fewer interactions with a smaller number of adults, it’s more personal and there is more involvement with parents.
Unfortunately, when children move to secondary school these scaffolds can just fall by the wayside, because there is no longer that consistent adult in the picture. Young people have to interact with perhaps five different teachers each day. There will be different relationships with each of those – and of course, added to that is the small issue of puberty!
For some of these kids, we also need to remember that it takes every ounce of their resilience to actually get to school in the morning. They may be living with the realities of poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, complicated family dynamics or just the normal stresses of family life.
And when they do make it into school, perhaps they have no pen, or may not have been able to do their homework, so they get a rollicking from the teacher – then they go to the next lesson and get the same, again and again. Our systems don’t always help.
I’m a fan and active user of social media but it does put extra pressure on young people. There’s no doubt that many live their lives through filters; even if they are acutely unhappy or depressed, they can easily put a selfie on Instagram or do a Facebook post which gives the impression to friends and peers that everything is great.
Moreover, in their online lives, children and young people can quickly get drawn into things they wouldn’t have done in the past.
Sexting, for example – you would never have got that a few years ago. In my day it would have been unthinkable, as you would have had to take the photo, then take the camera to chemist to get the film developed.
Knowing that someone could see it and challenge you was deterrent enough.
Today, in contrast, young people can take a photo and within 30 seconds, send it to someone without knowing or even considering where it will eventually end up.
Although some do, not all children with mental health issues will have been through a significant trauma or have experienced a challenging family background. They may ‘just’ have issues with low self-esteem; we are such an image orientated society, where everyone is pressured into thinking they must conform to a social ‘ideal’. Young people are constantly trapped by this idea of perfection.
Doing things differently
Through the MindSpace programme, we have a mental health worker coming in every week to our school, and it makes a real difference to have a regular person with whom young people can build relationships.
Our mental health worker is a known entity; she’s around and visible. It’s the difference between making a phone call to CAMHS, and having someone on site whom we and the kids know and can speak to straight away.
She has already engaged with over 45 young people and her work has undoubtedly had an impact on those individuals. Currently this is on a 1:1 basis but as we move forward and the programme matures we hope we can further develop the offer so we can impact more widely.
Parents have also found the support helpful and again, developing a broader offer for parents and families is something we’d like to achieve moving forward.
Darton College is highly inclusive; we have three times the national figures for statemented learners and low rates of exclusion. Frustratingly, though, the wider work we do with young people and their families is not recognised or acknowledged.
When people visits our school they comment on the ‘feel’ of it, and recognise that we are not just driven by exam results. Like all school leaders and teachers, that does not mean that I don’t want our children to achieve their full potential – I absolutely do; but I want us to consider the whole child, always.
More is needed
We are living in times when there are huge pressures on families and communities, and the role of parents is critical. Learners who have stability and are well supported at home tend to do much better than whose who lack those things.
Having led a school that had Children’s Centre I am acutely aware of the good work that was developed to support young people and their families, developing parenting skills and early intervention work.
However, as a result of funding cuts much of this support has now been lost.
There needs to be a long hard look at this. We need to get the foundations in families right, and we need to address the issue of school funding – because in order to provide appropriate levels of pastoral care, we are having to forgo additional capacity elsewhere, and we are far from alone in this.
Society is facing huge challenges at the moment; we can’t just drop all the problems this creates at the feet of schools.