Schools call in therapists as stress soars among pupils

The Sunday Times, 22/03/15, head teachers said this weekend that, as well as hiring counsellors and holding mindfulness and meditation lessons, they were working with psychiatrists and therapists at private hospitals such as the Priory clinics. 

Former HMC Chairman Bernard Trafford, headmaster of The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle and HMC member Andrew Halls, headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon are quoted.

Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, said he employed two full-time counsellors and mental health problems were affecting almost every school.

“At least one in 10 children will suffer from a mental health disorder in their school career,” he said. “That’s three in every class in every school. It’s getting worse. All the top private schools are seeing an increase. We are dealing with a very concerning situation.

“We are seeing new cases every week. Every year we will have one child on suicide watch and we sit with them until help arrives. We use experts all the time.”

Andrew Halls, head at King’s College School, Wimbledon, said: “All heads think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ You would be amazed how many schools have a significant number of pupils seeing someone at the Priory.” It is not only teenagers who are suffering. The first prep schools conference to address the issue will take place in London this week and will hear that young children are also affected. Gerard Silverlock, headmaster at King’s College Junior School and the event organiser, said high anxiety levels had been seen among six-year-olds tutored to pass entrance tests for elite schools. Silverlock has taken on a psychotherapist who works with pupils at 10 schools.

The expressions of concern come as The Sunday Times continues its campaign to improve the mental health of Britain’s schoolchildren. More than 17,000 children were admitted as emergency psychiatric cases last year, twice the number of four years ago.

The government yesterday announced an extra £1.25bn to improve mental health services, including children’s treatment programmes.

Halls said the mounting mental health problem was, in part, driven by children in leading schools being “surrounded by a culture of extraordinary achievement. They want to go to Oxford or Cambridge. They want to get excellent A-levels. They want to get a first,” he said. “They live their lives online 24/7. They worry about jobs. The pressures on them of 21st century life are enormous.”

Other children suffer as a result of their parents battling in bitter divorces.

Annie Hart, 18, a high-achieving pupil from West Sussex, believes the pressure exerted on her to take some of her GCSEs at the age of 13 precipitated her mental illness which led to self-harm.

“It just wasn’t age appropriate to enter a child for GCSEs age 13. It was a big stress,” said Hart, who had to wait 10 weeks before being seen by the school counsellor and spent time on an adult ward in hospital because there was no space in a children’s unit.

Kate Marshall, 19, was a pupil at a private girls’ school in London when, at the age of 13, she began having panic attacks. Seven years on and about to go to Cambridge University, she is still having therapy. “I was withdrawn and very stressed about things in school in my early teens,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure on pupils to get good grades. We were expected to be perfectly formed adults but we were just children.”

As well as sessions with a NHS therapist, Marshall’s father, who works in the City, paid for private treatment at a Priory clinic. She believes the problem of mental illness among children is widespread. “There is pressure from schools because you are expected to do well. You are told that if you do not pass your exams you are a failure and you will not do anything in life,” she said.

Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant psychologist who works with about 60 state and private schools, said early intervention was critical.

“One case I am working with involves a 17-year-old who first developed depression at the age of 13 after being bullied,” she said. “Now she is self-harming and has developed bulimia. That’s a serious condition that could take a long time to sort out. If it had been picked up earlier, it might not have got to this stage.”

Early intervention helped Marcus, a pupil at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, when he tried to take his life two years ago. The teenager, a brilliant pupil from a broken home, was referred first to the school’s doctor and then an emergency response team after a concerned friend sounded the alarm. Weekly therapy sessions have helped — though it took 18 months for Marcus to feel better and he is now at university.

“Depression can be caused by lots of things — if you are not confident, if you haven’t got friends, if you have been bullied,” he said.

“A major factor can be expectation, which is why a lot of high achievers have the same struggle. I got a string of top grades at GCSE, but I just felt like I’d done what I had to do and so I wasn’t happy or proud. You end up always considering yourself a failure.”

The Sunday Times is campaigning for teachers to receive training to spot the early signs of mental health problems and to ensure that every child at risk is seen by a mental health specialist within a fortnight.

The campaign also calls for every pupil to have access to a counsellor who will liaise with specialist NHS mental health services if a child is at risk.

Some names have been changed to protect pupils’ identities.

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