Imagine you’re a ten-year-old who notices what’s going on the world. Your day includes hearing many disturbing news items. How the future planet is going to be unliveable. How the rising number of children catching Covid-19 at school are taking it home to infect older relatives. How your parents argue about how they’re going to afford the huge energy bills. How Christmas might be ‘cancelled’ again. The constant exposure to social media – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and TikTok – can bring worrying texts, distressing news images and potential bullying messages from other children.
Unsurprisingly, mental health issues are increasing
The recent rise in cases is shocking. A recent NHS Digital survey found this year that one sixth of England’s children “had a probable mental disorder” and that nearly 40 percent felt their mental health had worsened since 2017.
The survey also observed increases in eating, sleeping and school attendance problems, often affected by anxiety. It is reported that 75% don’t get the support they need, despite the fact that schools are employing twice as many counsellors now as in 2017. This expense, of course, is coming out of schools’ already stretched budgets.
Schools generally work hard to help students who need mental health support. Many schools will include learning about bullying prevention during Anti-Bullying Week, which starts on 15 November. All schools have to teach about internet safety as part of their safeguarding measures. However there is still plenty of scope for children’s anxiety to grow and it is harder for schools to deal with issues that originate outside hours or online.
Worryingly, outside agencies to which they can refer students have long waiting lists, often longer than a year, for specialist help at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). And Suffolk and Norfolk services have experienced something of a crisis in recent years. A child in acute distress can’t wait a year.
How do we go forward?
Clearly this is an issue that needs addressing urgently. Aside from trying to support children’s existing mental health issues, are there ways they can be prevented?
Schools have long been asked to play a role in trying to strengthen young people’s resilience. There are other tools that may help, although the timetable is already very crowded. Unless these programmes are given priority, it is difficult to squeeze them in.
Outside organisations sometimes offer expertise and tailored programmes too. For example, from 8 November, 36 schools in East Anglia are starting the RTT ‘I Can’t to I Can’ mental wellbeing challenge. Over five days, activities and ‘mind hacks’ are taught which aim to help build resilience and self-esteem. For children who have had to endure so much pressure and stress recently, this issue must be addressed, and schools cannot tackle it alone. A more holistic approach is needed, and warrants adequate time and resources.