It’s time to up our game on children’s mental health

By Nic Dakin MP

Rightly the fact that it’s Child Mental Health Week reminds us all of the importance of upping our collective game in this area.  Head teachers in schools across England consistently put pupil wellbeing and mental health as one of their top concerns.  Head teachers and Principals tell me that the number of pupils and students with mental health difficulties has risen in recent years. This is reflected in research that show the number of children turning up in A&E with mental health problems is now more than double what it was in 2010 and that one in five children will experience a mental health difficulty at least once in their first 11 years.

Many mental health difficulties that adults experience began in childhood, so if we can put the resources in at the right time, carefully targeted to provide the right intervention and support when youngsters are at school, it should be to everyone’s benefit. Yet, getting access to counselling services remains challenging in secondary and tertiary education with referrals to CAMHS often taking much longer than anyone would wish. According to new research published by children’s mental health charity Place2Be and NAHT this week, two thirds (64%) of primary schools in England do not have a counsellor based on-site, and the majority (59%) of those that do, provide counselling on-site for one day a week or less. 

But the frontline for creating good health and wellbeing amongst young people is in the general support available in the home and in school.  As part of this, access to high quality Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), including Sex and Relationship Education (SRE), is crucial.  Yet under this Government things are going backwards with a worrying downwards trend in the quality of PSHE in schools. In 2010, research from Ofsted found that PSHE was requires improvement or inadequate in one quarter of schools surveyed. By 2013, this had risen to 40 per-cent. Even Schools Minister Nick Gibb admitted this figure was “unacceptably high”. Although the world has changed significantly since then and our young people are now navigating their way through the downsides of new media, the most recent guidance on SRE was published in 2000. Despite this, the Conservative Government repeatedly refuse to ensure all young people have access to age-appropriate Sex and Relationships Education that would teach them about issues such as staying safe in relationships and online.

Child Mental Health Week is a great opportunity for all of us to recognise best practice where it happens and to renew efforts to ensure schools equip children and young people with the tools to navigate the risk and opportunities of today’s world.  We also need to celebrate the positive work of school based counsellors.  I will be visiting St Paul’s Way Trust School on Tuesday to see first-hand the work of a school counsellor and learn more about how that work impacts on young people’s lives.