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Teachers left to pick up pieces from cuts to youth mental health services

As the headteacher of large primary school in the west of England, Joan Cunningham is accustomed to the demanding aspects of managing an intake from a mainly disadvantaged area. However, for the past couple of years, she says, one issue has escalated so dramatically that it is nearly at crisis point. “There is so much more pressure on schools and teachers to deal with children’s mental health and behavioural problems,” she says. “We provide as much support as we can but, with fewer resources available and a massive increase in need … the pressure has been incredible.”

Cuts to mental health and other services for young people mean teachers are increasingly having to fill the gap, even though schools do not always have the resources or training to provide the extra support pupils with mental or emotional issues may need.

“It was already hard to access the right services before cuts but its getting worse,” Cunningham says. “Teachers … are not mental health professionals, and now there is a vacuum in the services we have [traditionally] relied on. Social services departments are under more pressure due to cuts, Sure Starts … have vanished, [and] in many cases the voluntary organisations we used to be able to turn to are disappearing. Sign-posting families to where they can get help is much harder because of all of this.” At a time when families are under greater financial strain and “even very young children” are under pressure to achieve academically, she concludes, the need for support is “growing very fast”.

Child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) have been particularly hard hit. These specialist services assess and treat children and young people with mental, emotional or behavioural difficulties. Typically, when schools cannot offer the support of their own counsellor, or when a child has especially serious difficulties, they will seek out their local Camhs for help.

In many cases, local authorities commission and fund these services, and the impact of council budget cuts on Camhs in some areas has been severe. According to research by the charity Young Minds, two-thirds of councils in England have reduced their Camhs budget since 2010. And when the charity asked NHS trusts and councils about other mental health spending targeted at children and young people, such as youth counselling or specific services for schools, more than half had cut budgets – some by as much as 30%.

The cuts mean local authorities’ Camhs spending is increasingly redirected towards more serious cases of mental ill-health, at the expense of early intervention services. “Draining money from early intervention services is short-sighted and just stores up problems for the future,” says Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds. “The result is Camhs feels it is being asked to respond to an enormous number of issues and schools feel Camhs has left them high and dry.”

Chris Harrison, national executive member and former president of the NAHT, says part of the problem until recently has been that targets in education have allowed children’s wellbeing to slip down the agenda. “The issue of mental health [in schools] has been coming to the fore over the past four or five years; there’s a real groundswell of interest, but it isn’t yet a priority in schools. We need to accept that preparation for life is about more than academic results.”

Research by the Teacher Support Network, a charity focusing on teachers’ wellbeing, shows around half of teachers feel pupil behaviour is worsening. Its survey of over 800 teachers also found almost two-thirds were stressed as a result.

The cuts to Camhs mean schools are struggling to provide professional support on site. Some have set aside cash from the Pupil Premium to pay for a regular counsellor. Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, says that an “ad-hoc” system of support relies too heavily on the initiative of individual heads or teachers, and is undermined by unsatisfactory and arbitrary access to funds. “We see raising awareness of this issue as a major priority,” he says. “When we conducted research on child behavioural problems we found that three-quarters of parents asked teachers for help … However, some schools are better equipped than others. Many have virtually nothing by way of [professional] support, while others have full-time counsellors.”

Inadequate and underfunded services mean undue stress is being put on teaching staff, who may feel they are not trained or qualified to tackle many of the emotional or mental health problems that come up.

And with anecdotal evidence suggesting the number of young people experiencing mental health problems is rising, the crisis in Camhs is set to get worse. In 2004, the last year that government statistics were centrally collected on the prevalence of mental ill-health among children and young people, 1.3 million children were deemed to have a diagnosable mental illness. The economic downturn, coupled with government austerity and exam stress, means this figure is now probably much higher. And with NHS England estimating that only a quarter of children and young people with a problem are ever seen by mental health services, the figures are just the tip of the iceberg.

Politicians are becoming more aware of the scale of the problem. The health select committee has begun a parliamentary inquiry into Camhs, which campaigners hope will push mental health in schools higher up the agenda when it is published this year. “What we need is a consistent, national system that is accountable. What we need is for Camhs to be transformed.” says Bell.

Harrison says more needs to be done to ensure heads and schools have access to effective support services. “Schools and heads are battered at the moment. We want the government to look at the evidence. It’s common sense. There is overwhelming evidence that students learn better and are more effective in environments where they are supported and their teachers are supported.”

For now, charities and campaign groups are having to help schools themselves. Young Minds offers guidance on its website for teachers and is about to pilot a helpline for school staff, while the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change is running a project promoting pupil wellbeing and offering practical guidance for teaching staff. “Pupils are under much more stress these days and so are staff, yet teachers don’t have training in mental health – or spare time,” says Moira Clewes, lead teacher on health at Sandwich technology school, Kent, one of the schools piloting the project. “We are breaking down misconceptions around mental illness. Students are opening up. Teachers are grateful for advice. You’d be amazed at the impact this is having.”

A Department for Education spokesperson points to a range of initiatives, including the MindEd website, launched in March, designed to help people working with children, including teachers, “to recognise when a child needs help and how to make sure they get it”. The Department of Health says it has a “priority” focus on children’s mental health and, among other things, has put additional cash in to “talking therapies”, adding that it is liaising with the DfE to improve links between schools and Camhs.

For Cunningham, while any help is welcome, she is adamant that “nothing short of a clear, coherent and properly funded approach nationally will work for schools and for children”.

• Some names have been changed