Why we should be using schools to help improve our children’s mental health

Seeing report after report on the worrying state of children’s mental health makes me feel as if we’re in the middle of a ­national epidemic. Despite some ­investment in recent years, the ­children’s mental health system is blighted by long waiting lists and a postcode lottery.

Thousands of children and young people continue to struggle without support. More than 32,000 children had been waiting over two years for help at the end of 2022/23.

The consequences for school attendance, educational achievement and mental health problems in ­adulthood are enormous.

We’re at crisis point with one in five Year 9 pupils in one area having a probable eating disorder, and one in six 12 to 15-year-olds in the same area having self-harmed in the past 12 months.

The latest Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives report couldn’t be more welcome. It sets out a plan to improve the mental health and ­wellbeing of children through schools, to support the one in five children with a probable mental health condition.

It proposes this could be done by widening mental health support teams to all schools, new one-stop-shop hubs for parents and children to find local help, and a national rollout of local wellbeing surveys.

The report also sets out the crucial role schools can play in supporting mental health and wellbeing.

With children spending so much time in school, educational settings provide the ideal opportunity to reach large numbers simultaneously, and can also facilitate intervention with pupils displaying early mental health or behavioural symptoms.

This can reset the vision, putting the life chances of young people at the heart of policy-making and delivery.

The report calls on the Government to expand the mental health support offered through schools and ­educational settings from primary school onwards, without placing extra burdens on teachers by harnessing the power of digital technology. It also calls for school-based surveys like the existing #BeeWell and Age of Wonder projects to be rolled out nationally .

This would gather local information about children’s mental health and wellbeing, identify geographical hotspots and then determine when the “emotional temperature” of the school is in the danger zone, so that schools can be offered early support.

“Programmes like #BeeWell, which listen to the voices of young people, are crucial to understanding the ‘emotional temperature’ of schools,” says Professor Neil Humphrey, Academic Lead for #BeeWell at Manchester University, and executive editor of the report.

“By listening to what young people tell us, and publishing the results privately to schools, and publicly by neighbourhood, we can drive action across society.”