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Mental health support needs to begin in early childhood

Posted on 27 April 2018 by Emily Tanner, Head of Children, Families & Work
Tags: education, health, schools, mental health

There’s widespread concern about the mental health of children and young people in England. Self-reported levels of happiness and wellbeing are low and declining, and England compares poorly to other countries. Stories about the negative effects of exam stress, body image, relationships and more recently, social media are rarely out of the news, driving a real sense of urgency to find solutions.

The government’s green paper on mental health puts forward a wide range of approaches to improve children and young people’s mental health using schools as the focal point for identification, referral and in some cases, treatment. Underpinning this approach is the National Centre for Social Research report which gives us a snapshot of how schools are currently supporting children with mental health needs and where they are struggling to cope.

The impact of any policy changes resulting from the green paper remains to be seen, but it’s clear from research that currently, the majority of teachers feel insufficiently equipped to detect and deal with the mental health of the children in their care.

A 2016 survey from the National Association of Head Teachers found that two-thirds of primary school teachers did not feel able to respond to mental health needs. This resonates with NatCen’s evaluation of the Talented Teacher programme for Place2Be, which found high levels of need among Newly Qualified Teachers for training on how to support mental health and wellbeing prior to the programme.

The scale of the challenge emphasises the need to intervene early, providing the help that children and families need to prevent problems developing. At the moment, the support structures are stronger in secondary schools than primary schools, despite the rate of clinically diagnosable mental health conditions being only slightly lower in 5-10 year olds (8%) than 11-15 year olds (12%).

Primary schools are currently less likely than secondary schools to offer mental health support services such as counselling (56% vs 84%), one-to-one support (49% vs 76%) and educational psychology support (63% vs 71%). They are also less likely to have a plan or policy in place for promoting the mental health and wellbeing of all pupils (53% vs 70%), a preventative approach. 

And what more can be done even before children start primary school? Given that good mental health is established in early childhood, there’s a strong argument for much more focus on prevention and early intervention in the early years.

Over recent years, funding and provision has shifted away from the universal family support provided by children’s centres towards increasing hours of funded early education.

While this may improve school readiness, it reduces access to a service that has the potential to improve relationships between parents and children, as well as mothers’ mental health. With wider cuts to early intervention and prevention services, there’s a risk that the burden on schools will rise, and schools will increasingly have to address the problems that could have been picked up earlier.

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